5 Best Tonics for a Gin and Tonic

When tonic is half of your cocktail, it's worth using the best one.



The origin story of the gin & tonic is one of the most familiar in the classic cocktail canon. Still, it bears repeating, especially now that we’re well into springtime, and many of us will be consuming far more G and Ts than we have the past several months.

The story begins in India, during British colonial rule, when newly relocated English subjects needed some sort of way to stave off the ravages of malaria. Quinine, which is derived from the bark of the South American cinchona tree, had been known in Europe as an effective prophylactic and cure since the mid-17th century. A daily dose of it was standard, then, for the British colonists in India. There was just one problem: It tasted terrible. Quinine is exceptionally bitter, and ingesting it every day was…not pleasant.

Necessity, the old cliché goes, is the mother of invention, and it’s no wonder that in relatively short order, a solution was found to make the off-puttingly bitter quinine more palatable: Mix it with sugar, gin, and a spritz of lime (which also helped with scurvy), and it becomes a part of a delicious and bracingly refreshing concoction. The G and T was born. (For more on the medicinal histories of what we drink, make sure to check out Camper English’s excellent book, “Doctors and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Cocktails.”

Fast forward a couple of centuries, and the opposite problem had become an issue: The majority of tonic waters on the market contained precious little quinine, and were so bogged down with sweeteners (the most egregious being high fructose corn syrup) that they often ran the risk of overwhelming the character of the gin in the drink, unless more and more of the spirit was added, which resulted in an unbalanced cocktail.

But for the past decade-plus, we have found ourselves in something of a golden age of tonic water. Gone are the days when your choices were more or less limited to sweet or really sweet; now, countless brands are working to offer tonics that find balance, and that often contain other unexpected flavors. Fever-Tree, for example, has a Mediterranean tonic with notes of scrubby herbs, as well as an elderflower tonic and a cucumber option; Franklin & Sons offers premium Indian tonic water and a premium light tonic water. You get the idea: There are, it seems, as many interesting, thoughtful tonic waters on the market today as there are gin & tonic drinkers.

In an effort to help you make the most of the classic cocktail, check out these five standouts. Just remember: Not all of them will work with all gins. A classic London dry style, like Sipsmith or Beefeaters, will tend to work with the broadest swath of them, but there is an entire world of unusual gins that will require a bit more research on your part to see which combination is best. The good news is that the research involves mixing up a bunch of gin and tonics.

365 Tonic Water

From the in-house brand of Whole Foods, this isn’t the most exciting tonic, but it’s widely available, well-priced, and very reminiscent of the sweeter, old-school classics from Canada Dry and Schweppes. It’s made with invert cane sugar – a combination of fructose and glucose that’s derived from sucrose – as opposed to high fructose corn syrup.

Betty Buzz Tonic Water

With a focus on the bitter character of the quinine and a rounder, riper hint of fruit than the others in this list — think stone fruit and papaya — as well as a floral note, this tonic from Blake Lively’s line of mixers can help showcase a tried-and-true gin like Tanqueray or The Botanist in a new light.

Fever-Tree Refreshingly Light Premium Indian Tonic Water

In a world of cloying “light” drinks that lean on synthetic sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin, this light tonic stands out for its use of fructose. The result is a mixer that allows the subtle bitterness of quinine to come through alongside a distinct lemon note.

Franklin & Sons Premium Indian Tonic Water

This English tonic’s list of ingredients includes both quinine and cinchona bark extract, and it balances the relatively subtle sweetness of sugar with a bracing bump of bitterness. A suggestion of lemon oil results in an assertive yet very well balanced mixer. It especially sings when stirred with the new Bombay Sapphire Premier Cru, which deliciously highlights Murcian lemon, orange, and mandarin notes.

Q Spectacular Tonic Water

There is more assertive carbonation in this tonic as well as a quieter citrus note than many others. As a result, the bitterness of the quinine comes to the fore, making it particularly excellent with a citrus-forward gin.

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