Food & Drink » Concoctions

A Tonic To Cure You


On a hot summer’s day one usually thinks of beer to drink. While in America, an ice-cold beer is the summertime beverage of choice, in the rest of the world beer is properly served at a warmer temperature and is less refreshing to those seeking the coldest thing down their gullet. On the other hand, most liquor doesn’t come to mind of being able to quench one’s thirst during a 100-plus degree day. But it can.

Enter the tonic. With either traditional gin or vodka, a few of these might make you forget all about that egg frying on the back seat of your car. Of course, you don’t want to overdo it. Drinking too much, even beer, on a hot summer’s day will help you learn the meaning of dehydration and you might also forget about that baby you left in the back seat as well. But you shouldn’t be driving anyway. I’m getting off topic here.

By it’s very definition a tonic is something that cures your illness. Gin and tonics started out as that, a medicine. When the British Empire was busy establishing colonies (in this case India) to reap the rewards of their labor, their journeys took them to tropical places where nasty bugs and diseases took their toll on the lowly soldier. To fight malaria it was discovered that quinine had a preventative effect in helping to avoid the disease caused by a parasite. The only thing was, quinine tastes awful in the quantities one has to ingest for malaria prevention.

In order for the commanders to get their soldiers to drink the nasty stuff they tried mixing it with water and making it carbonated. No go. It still tasted nasty. Then they hit on a brilliant idea. If you want to get soldier’s to drink something, add a spoonful of sugar. It helps the medicine go down. Only in this case the sugar was fermented and distilled in the form of gin, the most popular spirit amongst the king’s royal subjects at the time. The British had long ago figured out that soldiers with a little bit of “Dutch Courage” would do better on the battlefield anyway. Add a little lime or citrus to the mix and you’ve got a protection against scurvy too.

Over time, the tastes of this nasty mix became acquired. And, with modern medicines, the quantity of quinine was dramatically reduced to where it acts only as a flavoring in modern tonic waters. The Food and Drug Administration limits the amount of quinine in commercial tonic water to 83 parts per million, about one-quarter the amount in medicinal concentrations. Commercial tonic water is also sweetened with sugar.

Sometime in the mid-1950s vodka took over the number one spot in quantities of spirits sold. Someone got the bright idea to try that with tonic as well and the vodka tonic was born. These days, the proper way to order tonic drink is to call the brand of gin or vodka you want. My motto is “the better the spirit, the better the cocktail.” Once one acquires a taste for tonic it makes a refreshing drink by itself with a splash of lime. Also available are diet tonic waters without the sugar for those who are watching their swimsuit figure. Frankly, I have a hard time telling diet from full strength tonic, but after a few who cares anyway? And, after a few, I begin to look more beautiful as well.

Here’s a little more advice from a long-time tonic drinker: if you are throwing a party go ahead and get the liter-sized plastic bottles of tonic. Otherwise, get the small single portions. They cost more, but when you discover how fast tonic water goes flat you’ll thank me. One more interesting note, if you’re in a dance club and notice that someone’s drink glows under the blacklights, it’s probably a tonic and is a clue that you’re probably looking at an experienced drinker.