The story of how gin and tonic came together fizzes with adventure, discovery, imperial ambition, biopiracy and a generous splash of fake news
18 December 2019
LIVER feeling torpid? Nerves debilitated? Stomach weak? Do as the Victorians did and pour yourself a drop of the soft stuff: a tongue-tingling glass of tonic water. Best known today as one half of the ultimate English cocktail, it started out as a drink to revitalise the body and revive the spirits. Now, its sparkling story has been revealed, thanks to two tonic-tippling botanists.
On a blistering August afternoon – very definitely a gin-and-tonic sort of day – I headed to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to meet Kim Walker and Mark Nesbitt. I soon found myself in the blissfully cool interior of a temperature-controlled storehouse. There, among Kew Gardens’ vast assemblage of botanical treasures, is the world’s largest collection of bark from cinchona trees, the source of tonic’s most vital ingredient: quinine. Rack after rack of floor-to-ceiling shelves hold a thousand bundles of bark along with bottles, packets and jars of cinchona seeds, powders and extracts.
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Walker and Nesbitt have scoured this collection and Kew’s archives to trace the evolution of tonic water for their new book, Just the Tonic: A natural history of tonic water . Both the taste and the fizz, it turns out, are rooted in medicine. It is a tale of discovery, adventure, imperial ambition and biopiracy, with a generous garnish of myth.
Cinchona trees are native to South America. There are 25 species (the 25th discovered only in 2013), all restricted to cloud forests strung along the eastern slopes of the Andes from Colombia to …