Explainer: all about tonic water

Cinchona, from which quinine is derived.

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? It was, like much of what you’ll see behind the bar, first consumed as a medicine.

In this month’s Explainer, we’ll look at some vital tonic water stats, explore whether you ought to DIY your own, and look at how tonic water came about.

A little tonic history

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.

Can you DIY?

You can, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Like many medicines, you can overdose on quinine. This results in cinchonism, an illness with symptoms like nausea, headaches, tinnitus, slight visual disturbances for a mild case; severe cinchonism can have cardiovascular effects, result in severe headache, intestinal cramps with vomiting and diarrhea, apprehension, confusion, seizures, blindness, and more.

And the reason we’re not keen to try your homemade, DIY tonic water is that if you’re using cinchona bark, the quinine content of the bark changes depending on a variety of factors, but Camper English of Academics has suggested that cinchona bark has around five percent quinine. The problem is, you just don’t know how much quinine is in your batch if you’re using cinchona bark, and that means you just don’t know how much quinine you’re serving to your guest.

Buy the commercial stuff instead.

Beyond the G&T

You think tonic water, and you think Gin & Tonic, right? But we’ve heard from this month’s cover stars, Jessica Arnott and Chris Hysted-Adams, that the vast majority of supermarket sales of tonic water are getting drunk as is. That is, without gin. 

Strange, we know.

There are however other ways of getting in your daily anti-malarial. Around 2015, in third wave coffee shops across the USA, Cold Brew Coffee & Tonic became a thing. We reckon there was all of two minutes before an enterprising bartender added some hooch to the mic, too.

And for a while now, among those with a penchant for the agave stuff, Tequila & Tonic has been a go-to highball.

For our money, we reckon you should combine both drinks for a Tequila, Coffee & Tonic. It’s gotta be worth a shot.

ORGANICS by Red Bull Tonic Water
This new one, Organics by Red Bull Tonic Water, is made with lemon juice concentrate organically sourced, botanical extracts and quinine – a harmonic blend of sweet, sharp and dry.
Red Bull

StrangeLove Dirty Tonic
An Australian tonic water with a difference, their Dirty Tonic uses raw, unrefined cinchona bark, rosemary, orange peel and sea salt for a drier taste.

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

Schweppes Signature Series Bright Tonic
This Bright Tonic forms part of the brand new Signature Series range from Schweppes, and was designed with input from three top Aussie bartenders.
Asahi Premium Beverages