What’s the Difference Between Soda and Tonic Water?

Great question, reader Jay. A little something called quinine, an alkaloidal substance found in the bark of the South America cinchona tree. It’s been one of the most popular additions to carbonated water since about the mid-1800’s. How did a bitter-tasting tree extract come to be one of the world’s most sought-after beverage components? In a word: malaria. Quinine was for hundreds of years the most effective anti-malarial drug known to man. It’s been used by Europeans since the early 1600’s, when it was first brought back from the New World, and by native South Americans for goodness-knows-how-many millennia before that.

So effective was quinine at both treating and preventing malarial infection that in the days of the world’s great empires colonials began consuming it as a prophylactic, in the same way we moderns consume iodine to prevent goiter. Among these were of course the British, who, having major interests in both India and Africa, did constant battle with the malaria parasite. It was terrible tasting stuff, especially back in the day when a typical serving of tonic (gives the word a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?) had about four times as much quinine in it than today’s commercial product. But then you could always mix it with something. Water? No, too bland. Fruit juice? Eh, too syrupy. Ah, gin, now there’s something that’ll really take the edge off! And thus the gin and tonic was born.

Another gin and tonic seargent-major?

Quite right lieutenant, you can’t be too careful.

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