The history and importance of gin isn’t complete without discussing tonic. The gin & tonic really did have medicinal value. Some of the other claims made by pharmacies back in the day like curing ailments and reviving your spirits were nothing compared to the malaria-fighting properties of what we today call tonic.
Back in the 1600’s the Spanish discovered that Peruvians used the bark of a tree to combat fevers and chills. The bark of the cinchona tree contains quinine which was tested against malaria since it was successful in breaking fevers. It quickly became the best treatment for malaria in Europe.
The cinchona trees were native to South America and the Spanish had a monopoly on the market. Eventually the British were able to grow the trees in India and the Dutch in Java breaking the Spanish monopoly and saving lives. By the 1840s British citizens and soldiers in India were using 700 tons of cinchona bark annually for their protective doses of quinine.
And so tonic water became an essential part of Britain's colonialism, though its taste in those days was bitter and harsh. The British soon found that adding gin, sugar, ice, and citrus was the perfect way to subdue the bitterness and make medicine more pleasant. As an added bonus, the limes prevented scurvy.
Winston Churchill once declared, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”
So as you sip your next Gin & Tonic, remember the curious history of the drink—or is it a drug after all?