Tonic water history: Yeah, it goes well with gin, but this mixer was once a lifesaver

Tonic water history: The cinchona plant, from the bark of which quinine is derived.

We’ve shared some of Australia’s best gin bars’ tips for making the perfect Gin & Tonic, but how much do you know about tonic water history?

Let’s start with the basics: what is tonic water, anyway?

Tonic water is a sparkling beverage containing quinine, sugar, and water, along with other flavouring ingredients — it’s a bitter drink, thanks to the quinine. Tonic water these days is far less bitter than it was in its earlier days, with modern brands using a much lower quinine content. But how did this bitter beverage get its start?

Tonic water history
Well, there’s a strong clue to its history contained within its name: it’s a tonic, after all, and its origins as a drink begin with the need to find a way to address malaria.

Malaria, for those up the back, is a disease transmitted to humans by mosquitoes carrying a particular parasite. For a long time it was believed that malaria was an airborne disease — it’s name is derived from the old Italian words for bad air: ‘mala’ meaning bad, and ‘aria’ meaning air.
It wouldn’t be until 1897 that it was proven to be transmitted to humans by mosquitos.


Prior to the discovery of cinchona bark as a remedy, the only treatments for malaria were bloodletting, amputation, and sometimes by way of drilling into someone’s skull.

But in time, it would be discovered that the bark from the South American fever-tree would cure malaria sufferers.

Tonic water history goes back a long way. The first written reference to this appears in 1633, when a monk named Antonio de Calancha wrote of the discovery: “A tree grows which they call the fever tree in the country of Loxa, whose bark, of the color of cinnamon, made into powder amounting to the weight of two small silver coins and given as a beverage, cures the fevers and tertiana; it has produced miraculous results in Lima.”

Quinine is the key component of tonic water. It’s the whole raison d’être for tonic water even existing.

Derived from the bark of the Cinchona tree, quinine is the active ingredient responsible for guarding against malaria. The tree is native to South America, and cinchona bark had been used by Andean tribes as a cure for fevers and stomach problems; and later, after the Spanish occupation, Jesuit priests began to use the local medicine to cure malaria (whether or not malaria existed prior to the Spanish is something up for debate, according to The Drunken Botanist author Amy Stewart).

This bark would be ground into a very fine powder and then mixed into liquid, resulting in a particularly bitter, unpleasant drink.

It wasn’t until the 1800s, however, that the bitterness of this anti-malaria drug would be made more palatable when colonial British troops in India would mix it with soda, sugar, and of course, gin.

Cinchona is also employed in countless other spiritous drinks: Kina Lillet, the distinguishing ingredient in the famous Bond drink, the Vesper, had bitter quinine at its core; Barolo Chinato is an Italian red wine aperitif — made from Barolo wine, naturally — with a dose of quinine; and it’s used as a supporting player in any number of vermouths.

By the way: just in case you think we’ve got this whole malaria thing figured out, well, you’d only be half right: the World Health Organisation estimates that in 2015, malaria caused the deaths of around 429,000. It’s not much of deal for us here in Australia, but people in Sub-Saharan Africa don’t fare as well — the WHO estimates that some 90 percent of those deaths from malaria happen there, and they estimate that it mostly kills children: some 300,000 children, they say, under the age of five.

The tonic water history

  • 1630s — Jesuit priests in South America discover cinchona bark’s usefulness in treating malaria.
  • 1850s — Schweppes bottles quinine, sugar and soda water, marking the first tonic water as we know it today.
  • 1860s — The Dutch begin growing cinchona as a crop in Java.
  • 1897 — British surgeon Sir Ronald Ross proves that malaria is transmitted by mosquitos.
  • 1940 — Nazi Germany takes over the world’s biggest supplier of processed quinine in Amsterdam.
  • 1942 — Imperial Japanese troops take control of Java, and seize control of a pivotal producer of quinine.
  • 1942 — The US launches the Cinchona Mission to gain enough cinchona to guard their troops against malaria during the second world war.
  • 1944 — A synthetic supply of quinine is established, reducing the US need for cinchona bark from South America.

Four tonic water bottlings to try

Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water
Fever-Tree’s tonic waters are made with natural cane sugar, soft natural spring water, and bitter orange, and employ quinine sourced from a plantation comprised of cinchona Ledgeriana, on the border of the Congo and Rwanda.

PS Soda Bush Tonic
From the same guys behind Sydney bar PS40, their Bush Tonic is made with Red Peruvian quinine extract, lemon and lime zests, native lemongrass, and lemon myrtle.
PS Soda

Cascade Tonic Water
Cascade is a drinks brand that’s been around for a long time. These days, for the on-premise they’ve got easy to store, 200ml cans which can be useful if you want to avoid the post mix route, but are pressed for space.

Quina Fina
This New Zealand-made tonic water is a drier-style tonic. They use Ecuadorian cinchona bark, organic lemon and a local artesian water to put together a perfect mixer for your Gin and Tonic.
Vanguard Luxury Brands