When the heat of summer weighs heavily upon me, there’s one sure-fire cure. Others may reach for their margaritas and tropical tiki drinks, but the Booze Nerd finds no better solace than in a crisp, refreshing classic: the Gin & Tonic. This cocktail has been a mainstay against the tropical heat ever since the days of the British Empire. Colonials stationed on the Indian subcontinent found that the potently bitter tonic water prescribed to fight malaria went down better with a slug of gin and a bit of lime. Though it took some time for it to gain a toehold outside of India, the Gin & Tonic has become one of the best known drinks of all time.
The cocktail is a simple affair: dry gin plus tonic water, usually in 2:3 proportion, though that can vary according to personal taste. Build in a highball glass over ice, and garnish with a wedge or slice of lime. If you’ve never had one, they’re a little like an adult version of a 7-Up or Sprite (two soft drinks I suspect have roots in drinks like the G&T, though I haven’t been able to prove it.)
The main ingredients of this deceptively simple cocktail are anything but simple. Gin is one of the most storied drinks in the history of Boozology, and how it came to be paired with tonic water is just the tip of the iceberg. Ready for some nerdy, boozy history? Good. Here we go.
“Drunk for a Penny. Dead Drunk for two pence, and straw for nothing.”
Gin gets its name from the Dutch jenever, which means “juniper.” Juniper berries have long been used to flavor medicines and distilled spirits. During the Black Plague in Europe, juniper was regarded as one of the most effective remedies for the disease and also prized for its perfume and medicinal qualities. It was often inserted into the beaks of “plague masks” to counter the miasmas of sickness. Like other botanicals, juniper berries have been used to mask bad flavors ever since—especially in batches of poorly-distilled alcohol. Jenever (or Genever) was invented by the Dutch sometime in the 17th century and was marketed as a health tonic all over Europe. The British aristocracy took special notice but saw it mainly as a foreign curiosity.
During the Thirty Years’ War, English soldiers and sailors fighting in Holland became quite fond of the drink, which they named “Dutch Courage” for the steadying of nerves it granted them before battle. When William of Orange, himself a Dutchman, was crowned king of England, genever became the official drink of the court, and thus all over England. William ensured genever’s future place in English history by passing economic laws favorable to its widespread production and banning the import of expensive French brandies. Cider and beer (heretofore the most popular English beverages) remained heavily taxed. England, already distilling its own grain-based spirits, began to produce a variety of genever in bulk. It was cheap, thanks to William of Orange’s economic policies. Real cheap. Foreign brandies, when they could be obtained, went for as much as 18 shillings a bottle. “Gin” as it had become known, could be had for as little as 2 shillings. (Of course, the cheap stuff was cut with all sorts of additives like sulfuric acid and turpentine, but pretty much everyone could afford a bottle or two or five.)
The upper crust continued to drink more nuanced styles of gin, which they steadfastly referred to still as “genever.” “Gin” was strictly the inferior rotgut consumed by the poverty-stricken masses. And consume it they did.
The Ladies’ Delight and Mothers’ Ruin
During the “Gin Craze” of the 18th Century, the English set new records for alcohol consumption. In 1689, all of England consumed about half a million gallons of gin. By 1750, the citizens of London alone consumed about 11 million gallons! Keep in mind, this is for a city of roughly 600,000 inhabitants. That’s a lot of tipples per capita. Traditionally, beer and cider had been sold in pubs to almost an exclusively male clientele. Gin was a great equalizer, however, and it became a very popular ladies’ drink. Even the kids were regularly tipping back child-size measurements known as “squibs.” It’s no wonder than the nation’s leaders began to worry that all of England would collapse from drunkenness. Mortality rates exploded, and whatever its true role in the ills of society, gin was blamed for every evil the establishment could pin on it.
They tried to tax it out of reach of the poor, but this only caused the population to riot. Then they tried to ban it. More riots and a thriving black market ensured that the ban didn’t last. Only a drought in the late 1750s (and subsequent failure of the grain crop) slowed the Gin Craze and ended the worst of the excesses.
The Fashion of Empire
Yet, in the early 19th century, Gin Palaces thrived. These gaudy halls where the rabble could still get their fix were all the rage. Prostitutes, sailors and housewives rubbed shoulders with upper class rakes who slummed in low society for a thrill and a bit to drink. Distillation practices had improved, however, and the purer gin became fashionable once more among the nobility. The British began exporting the superior product in 1850, along with their ever-expanding Empire. Life in the tropics was so much more bearable for these thirsty colonials when they had their beloved gin. Even Victorian ladies took to serving it at tea time, though often referring to it as “white wine,” which fooled no one, but at least gave a nod to propriety.
Ain’t We Got Fun?
It wasn’t until Prohibition that gin really came into its own in America. Most gins sold (and produced) in the U.S. prior to 1890 were modeled on the Dutch genever styles. These are maltier, sweeter, and barrel-aged. Golden in color, genever is mostly drunk straight, like schnapps. It doesn’t mix well with other spirits (like dry vermouth).
Desperate quaffers during Prohibition distilled their own “bathtub gin,” a hideous brew of grain alcohol and other flavorings. This stuff was not actually made in bathtubs, by the way, but the bottles were often “topped up” from the sink or bathtub tap water. This stuff was further mixed with other alcohol to mask the terrible taste, giving rise to the modern cocktail in the process.
Of course, bathtub gin could blind and/or kill you, so if you could afford to smuggle a bottle of gin in from Europe you did so. As a consequence, gin once again became associated with the fashionable and genteel, and for the most part, that’s the way it’s been ever since.
Bark of Barks
So what about the tonic water?
Quinine is a white, crystalline alkaloid whose only natural source is the bark of the South American cinchona tree. An effective analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-malarial medicine, it derives its name from the Incan word quina-quina, which means “bark of barks” or “holy bark.” The Quechua indians of Bolivia and Peru had been using it as a muscle relaxant to treat shivering caused by low temperatures. Jesuit missionaries took the powdered cinchona bark with them back to Rome, where popes and cardinals (not to mention regular folks) had been succumbing to malaria in alarming numbers (the Holy See was surrounded by swamps). “Jesuits Bark” became known far and wide as the go-to treatment for malaria and was thus one of the most valuable New World commodities.
It wasn’t until about 1850 that its use in disease prevention became wide-spread. For good or for ill, its use allowed the European powers to establish their colonies in tropical places like India and Africa. Tonic water was invented in 1858 as an easier way for those colonial Brits to get their required dose of anti-malarial meds. By the 1870s, Schweppes was marketing tonic water for public consumption. The rest, as they say, is history.
Modern tonic, by the way, doesn’t contain nearly as much actual quinine as it once did, and many of them are sweetened to make them more palatable to contemporary tastes. Consider that when choosing your tonic water.
So enough with the history. How does the Booze Nerd enjoy his Gin and Tonics? I generally prefer the recipe listed below, though sometimes a 1:1 proportion of gin-to-tonic fits my mood best. I encourage you to experiment and find what works for you.
As always, I’d love to hear from you about your own cocktail adventures.
Gin and Tonic
- 2 oz. London Dry Gin (I prefer Tanqueray)
- 3 oz. tonic water (Schweppes or Fever Tree are good choices)
Fill a highball glass with ice, add gin, tonic water as desired. Garnish with a slice or wedge of lime.