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The Best Tonic Water Recipe

It’s nearly summer – and Gin & Tonic season! So, why not make your own tonic water?

The Gin & Tonic has probably has the richest history of any gin beverage. Tonic water’s history in Europe dates back to the 1600’s, but it has been in use far longer by the Quechua Indians of Peru. The unique flavor of tonic water comes from quinine, which the Indians derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, or “quina”.  It has been used as medicinal “tonic” to relieve the symptoms of malaria and alleviate shivering in cold temperatures. Some believe it can help restless leg syndrome, leg cramps and other problems because it acts as a muscle relaxant.

Today’s commercial tonic water is only a distant, sweet “lite” version of the original. In the United States, this quinine-less flavor arises from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits for tonic water content to be less than 83 parts per million. That’s for good reason. Health benefits aside, quinine at medical concentrations has plenty of side effects, from cardiac arrhythmia, Cinchonism and other risks from overdose. Consult the FDA summary for more information. Therefore, if you dare to explore this “how to make tonic water” post, be careful that your concentration of quinine is not too strong and check with your friendly neighborhood chemist to confirm it. Legalese: Don’t blame us if you get sick.

Nevertheless, homemade tonic water is delightful – much more flavorful than the processed dreck that most purveyors sell (Q Tonic, Fentimans and John’s Premium Tonic Syrup are notable exceptions). Many interesting recipes on the web (such as here, here and here), include exotic ingredients like saffron, lemongrass and allspice that only distract from the taste of a gin – even though they may be fine beverages to help rescue a vodka and tonic from inadequacy. After skillful research, many catastrophes in the Wired Gin labs – as well as some delightful tastings – here is how to make the best homemade tonic water in the world:

The Ultimate Tonic Water

  • A scant 1/4 cup of Cinchona Bark
  • One quart (four cups) of water
  • Juice and zest of two limes (or lemons if you want a brighter “right of the pond” taste)
  • 1/4 cup of Citric Acid (also known as sour salt at some local grocers)
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 3/4 cups cane sugar
  • Sparkling water, such as from a Sodastream, an iSi Soda Siphon or just club soda purchased from your local grocer

In a small pot, boil the water with the cinchona bark and lime juice at a low simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Filter the resulting “tea” through a coffee filter to remove the debris from the cinchona bark and lime zest. While the liquid is still hot, add the sugar, salt and citric acid and stir vigorously. Cool the syrup in your refrigerator.

You’re almost there!

After the syrup has cooled, if you want to try plain tonic water,  add 1 part syrup to 2 to 3 parts sparkling water to taste. You’ve just created the most elegant, woodsy and deep-flavored tonic water. Ever. But, as British officers knew 150 years ago, this beverage needs gin! Experience this version, then move on to the recipe below.

To make the perfect homemade gin & tonic, start with a hearty gin such as Junipero or Tanquaray Classic. Into your favorite gin & tonic glass pour:

  • 2 parts gin
  • 1 part tonic water syrup
  • 3-4 parts sparkling water

Drop a few ice cubes into your glass, admire the unique amber color of your beverage and quaff with delight.

Many insightful people have posted tonic water recipes with far more exotic ingredients (here, here and here), including saffron, lemongrass and coriander. Ugh. These only cover up the creativity of the gin maker! Gin has so many botanicals, so why pollute its flavor?  If you buy bad gin (or even worse, vodka), these recipes may be helpful. However, try this recipe with a good gin and your taste buds will fly!

Please comment if you’ve had a chance to make this tonic and have ideas to bring it closer to gin perfection!

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