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As any gin enthusiast will know, tonic is a mandatory mixer for every home bar—but not all tonics are made equal. While your average corner store can may be saccharinely sweet, a wave of new craft producers and bigger brands are making big, delicious waves with the bubbly beverage.
What is tonic water? Simply put, it’s soda water, sugar, and quinine. Quinine is an extract pulled from the bark of the South American cinchona, a tree harvested for centuries for its medicinal properties. In the British colonies in the 1800s, English scientists began using the bark as an antimalarial remedy, but it's bracingly bitter, so it was incorporated into tonic waters and fortified wines to make it more palatable.
Since then, a range of creative drinkers have put their spins the traditional tonic recipe, crafting everything from sugar-free iterations to more inventive flavorings, like yuzu, lemon, and elderflower.
Here are the best tonic waters.
Best Overall: Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water
“Fever-Tree produces high-quality tonics that enhance normal cocktails,” says Juan Fernandez, the beverage director at The Ballantyne in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Best of all, it has a solid lineup—Classic, Light, Mediterranean, Elderflower, Aromatic, Lemon, Citrus, and Cucumber.”
All ingredients are harvested from natural sources: quinine from the Democratic Republic of Congo, ginger from the Ivory Coast, and lemons from Sicily. The star of the show, however, is the premium Indian Tonic—a must for G&Ts. All in all, it's is a straightforward, high-end, readily available option.
Most Authentic: East Imperial Old World Tonic Water
“This is my favorite tonic water,” says Seth Falvo, the bartender at Hotel Zamora in St. Pete Beach, Florida. “East Imperial boasts that it is the only modern tonic water that sources all key ingredients from Asia, just like the original tonic recipes."
This fact is a big draw because over the last century, commercial tonic makers have started dosing tonics with sugars to appeal to the soda-drinking crowd. Now, East Imperial’s Old World Tonic uses less than half the sugar of a standard can of tonic for a pleasant floral flavor profile. Try it with a bold gin to balance out the strong botanicals.
“While its low sugar, low acidity mouthful definitely does not make this something to sip on its own, this tonic does a remarkable job at highlighting the subtleties of your favorite gin instead of burying them,” Falvo says.
Best for Gin and Tonic: Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic Water
Fever-Tree's Mediterranean flavors come from lemon, thyme, rosemary, citrus, and herbes de Provence harvested from rocky hillside farms in Provence, France, just off the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. These ingredients combine to make a lighter, more subtly herbaceous version of the brand's Indian Tonic—a profile particularly excellent for mixing with vodka and, naturally, gin.
“Fever-Tree is the industry standard for quality tonic—at least if you're not going the extra step to make your own,” says Gavin Humes, the director of food and beverage for Scratch Restaurants Group. “The small bottles of Mediterranean Tonic are my favorite for a beautiful gin and tonic. It's got great effervescence, and it's light and flavorful, but also allows the gin to shine.”
“I think lemon plays beautifully with this tonic," he continues, "so a G&T with a twist of lemon instead of lime is my beverage of choice."
Best for Bartenders: Q Mixers Spectacular Tonic Water
Made with quinine from Peru and sweetened with agave, Q Mixers Spectacular Tonic Water has elegant carbonation and a broad range of flavors.
“I like the Q Spectacular tonic due to its brightness,” says Jason Allmond, the beverage director at Broughton Common in Savannah, Georgia. “A lot of tonics are falling flat to me these days or are trying to do too much—infusing a bunch of flavors or things to make tonic, well, less tonic-like. Q Spectacular forgoes all of that and just remains a bright, fizzy tonic, suitable for all kinds of beverages."
SeongHa Lee, a bartender at The Venetian Resort Hotel in Las Vegas, agrees.
“Any highball cocktail needs five components to be great: proper glassware, quality ice, fresh garnish, quality spirit, and quality mixer. My go-to tonic is Q Spectacular Tonic Water for a lot of reasons, but at the top of the list is the high carbonation level. All those bubbles ensure that your gin and tonic will be just as fizzy on the last sip as the first.”
Best Flavored: East Imperial Burma Tonic Water
While East Imperial’s regular tonics lean less on sugar in favor of quinine flavors, the Burma Tonic Water doubles up on natural sweetness with twice as much natural cane sugar and the highest amount of quinine available. To balance out the cane sugar and quinine, the brand adds a bit of lemongrass and manao lime, plus a few dashes of bitters. It's warm and spicy with a bit of cinnamon and lots of zest.
"East Imperial is the only tonic water I drink at home and the only tonic water we serve at the distillery. All of their styles boast superior flavor profiles and are all naturally low in sugar, which I love,” says Laura Johnson, owner and founder of You and Yours Distilling Co in San Diego. “The Burma Tonic is an ideal mate for traditional London Drys.”
Best Light: Q Mixers Light Tonic Water
Q Mixers Light Tonic Water skips the sugar in favor of a sugar and sweetener blend designed to replicate the flavors of Q Spectacular without the actual full dose of sugar.
“When I look to elevate a highball beyond a standard gin and tonic, the dry, yet flavorful Q Tonic is the one I lean on," says Frank Caiafa, the director of Handle Bars New York and author of "The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book." "It adds a spine to the core of the mix while allowing a unique or upgraded base spirit to shine through."
Natalia Cardenas, the beverage development manager for Breakthru Beverage Chicago, favors Q Tonics because “every time I use it for my customers, I am assured that they are tasting a cocktail that surpasses anything they’ve tried before. With its real ingredients, high carbonation and less sugar than others on the market, it’s a tonic I rely on time and time again.”
Best Syrup: Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. The Tonic Trio
So you’ve tried every iteration of a gin and tonic—why not flex your creative muscles with tonic syrups? These quinine-based recipes let you customize your drink to suit your personal taste. Each of Jack Rudy’s products are handcrafted with care in small batches. You can order them one-off or as part of a kit that includes all three of the brand’s signature tonic syrups: Elderflower, Grenadine, and Classic.
The real benefit of the tonic syrup is you can use it to adjust the quinine concentration to suit your needs. One bottle yields 23 servings (give or take based on how much tonic you like in your drink). Just add to soda water, your favorite spirit, and enjoy.
Tonic syrups are kept in the fridge and last far longer than an open can or bottle of tonic water.
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Kate Dingwall is a sommelier and spirits writer. She has been writing about the bar and spirits world for five years and has her BarSmarts and WSET certification.