Gin and tonic, as well as the secret ingredient within, have a rich and layered history that follows the history of European colonialism. This story begins with quinine, a bitter tree bark used by natives of modern-day Peru for centuries in traditional healing. It follows the Spanish conquistadors that observed this and the English who used quinine to protect their colonial interests in India.
Quinine gets its name from the cinchona tree in the Andean jungle. It was named in 1742 by the botanist Carl Linnaeus after the Spanish Countess of Chinchon, who had fallen ill in Peru when she was offered quinine and survived to return to Spain and share her experience. Quinine quickly became widely used to treat malaria and other ailments in Popes and became popular in the Catholic Church. Peru tried to maintain its monopoly on cinchona bark by imposing a moratorium on seed sales, but the Dutch managed to smuggle out seeds and develop plantations in Indonesia. From then on, the Dutch controlled worldwide production of quinine. It became popular in England when it cured King Charles II of malaria.
The story moves to the British occupation of India, where soldiers were exposed to malaria, most for the very first time. Those who live in malarious regions have relative immunity and consider it a mild, flu-like nuisance, but malaria can be deadly for visitors. The British found that quinine powder was very effective at both treating and preventing malaria. Officers stationed in India were encouraged to take a preventative dose of quinine every day. Quinine powder tastes extremely bitter, so the British took to mixing the powder to soda and sugar, and thus tonic water was born. Erasmus Bond and his competitor, Schweppes’, began manufacturing commercial tonic waters, which became popular in England and in malarious colonies.
At the same time, gin was making a comeback. It had long been associated with working class vice, but manufacturers were beginning to target a different class of buyer by advertising its cool and elegant taste. Gin and tonic was born out of India, made it back to England, and today is the most popular club drink in Spain.
Since colonial times, the antimalarial effects of quinine have been scientifically proven. Its popularity continued until the 1920’s, at which time the synthetic alternative, chloroquine, overtook the market. Quinine continued to supplement treatment for severe malaria cases when strains developed resistance to chloroquine. Today, quinine is still commonly used to treat malaria in pregnant women, who cannot safely take synthetic options on the market.