Eats and Drinks
Mixing It Up
Make your tonic as good as your gin, DIY style
Published: January 22, 2014
One of my former college roommates throws a certain party every summer, the main purpose of which is to retell tales of art-school glory and drink a ridiculous number of gin and tonics. In our 20’s we used cheap gin, because that was what we could afford and also we didn’t know any better. But as we got older and wiser, if not necessarily more affluent, we started buying better gin—in glass bottles, even!—and over time a bit of one-upsmanship ensued. People started bringing different craft gins and talking trash about the smoothness versus junipery-ness of other people’s offerings. I typically sat that one out, having never been a big G&T girl; really, the only time I drink them is at this particular party.
This past summer, however, I found myself caring passionately about the second ingredient—tonic water, the “T” in a G&T. I had resolved to exorcise high-fructose corn syrup from my diet; once I had stopped consuming anything containing HFCS, grocery store tonic water started tasting nasty to me. Given that my own summertime house cocktail is dark rum with tonic and lime (and I must confess to drinking rather a lot of them, even when it’s not summer), I needed to come up with a replacement for the standard 99-cent corn syrup-laden liter of Schweppes. It suddenly seemed ridiculous to me that my friends would spend so much time and money exploring obscure artisanal gins, and that I would shell out for Nicaraguan Flor de Caña rum, only to heedlessly mix our high-quality hooch with crappy grocery store tonic.
All I really knew about tonic was that the principal flavoring is quinine, known for its anti-malarial properties. (The commonly accepted history of the gin and tonic is that British colonialists in the mosquito-ridden subcontinent sought to mask quinine’s powerfully bitter taste with gin and lime juice, eventually developing a deep love for the combo.) What the hell is quinine, anyway, and where does it come from? It turns out that, traditionally, medicinal quinine was brewed from the bark of the cinchona tree, a tropical species also known as the “fever tree.” The quinine flavor in most mass-produced tonic waters is now, however, synthetic. Dang.
There are small-batch tonic waters on the market these days that use actual quinine, but they are pricey and it seems flat-out wrong to me to pay as much for the mixer in my cocktail as for the liquor itself. Furthermore, some of these “authentic” tonics still use troublesome ingredients. The makers of Q Tonic—which sells for about $3 per 250 milliliter, or enough to mix maybe two cocktails—brag about using “hand-picked quinine from the Peruvian Andes”—but then use agave syrup as sweetener. (Agave syrup is basically high-fructose corn syrup masquerading as a health food, and also a triumph of food marketing. Despite its popularity in organic products, agave syrup is highly processed, chemically extracted, and functionally and nutritionally the same as HFCS.) Double dang. What’s a girl to do?
My tonic water research then led to artisanal tonic syrup, which you can buy to mix with your own carbonated water for DIY drink mixers. This was promising: I had recently acquired a SodaStream machine, and the thought of fizzing up my own fancy tonic water was very appealing. The syrups are also expensive, however, and I figured if some Etsy-ite in Brooklyn can brew up respectable quinine syrup, then so can I. I had, after all, been making my own flavored syrups, including ginger and lavender, for use with the aforementioned home soda-maker machine. All I needed was some cinchona.
This turned out to be harder than I thought; my go-to local source for obscure herbals, the Health Concern in Towson, doesn’t carry cinchona. They said they’d be happy to special-order some for me, 1 pound minimum—that, however, would be an assload of the lightweight dried bark. I had also noticed tiny packets of cinchona bark for sale in Latino grocery stores, where it is called quina, but was afraid I’d need way more than that. In the end I ordered 4 ounces of cinchona bark for $8.50 plus shipping from Smallflower, an apothecary in Chicago.
There are all kinds of tonic syrup recipes on the internet, many of them calling for powdered cinchona bark and then bemoaning what a pain it is to strain it back out again from the finished product. Since I’ve already got enough tedious kitchen tasks on my hands in general, thank you, I ordered whole cinchona; I figured decocting the whole bark would probably do it, and if not, I could grind some myself. I also didn’t want to get into the extraneous ingredients, like lemongrass stalks and lime zest, that these recipes tend to call for. You’re putting a lime in the cocktail, why would you also need citrus in the tonic? Ditto with juniper berries—hell-o, the juniper’s in the gin, dude. In the end, I evolved a straightforward syrup that keeps well in the fridge and mixes into a just-right blend of bubbly, bittersweet, no-bullshit-ingredients tonic water. Good on its own, even better with hooch. Ah, sweet frugality.
Chronic Tonic Syrup
(Careful: this will spoil your ability to ever again enjoy commercial tonic waters!)
5 scant tablespoons cinchona bark, cut and sifted or broken into small pieces*
1 2/3 cups water
1 1/4 cups organic sugar
2 teaspoons citric acid (powder, carried in grocery stores)
*Note: more is definitely not better here
Makes a generous 2 cups/16 oz of syrup, or enough for about 16 cocktails.
Place cinchona bark and water in pot; bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once at hard boil, turn off and allow to steep for 30 minutes. Strain, using a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth. (If you try to do this in your French press, no matter how well washed, the tonic will have a distinct coffee flavor. Learn from my mistake!)
Put sugar and citric acid into a large glass jar with a lid. Pour liquid into jar, put lid on, shake until sugar and citric acid dissolve and the syrup is a clear, light amber. Keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
To mix a righteous rum and tonic, add 2 jiggers of rum and 1 jigger of syrup to 8 ounces soda water. Squeeze a lime wedge over. Serves two. Or one, if it’s been a rough day.
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