As any gin enthusiast will tell you, tonic is a mandatory mixer for every home bar, but not all tonics are made equally. While your average store-bought version may be saccharinely sweet, many new craft producers and bigger brands are making delicious waves with the bubbly beverage.
What is tonic water? Simply put, it’s soda water, sugar, and quinine, an extract pulled from the bark of the South American cinchona tree. Since its conception in the 1800s, a range of creative drinkers has put their spins on the traditional tonic recipe, crafting everything from sugar-free iterations to more inventive flavorings, such as yuzu, lemon, and elderflower.
Here are the best tonic waters.
Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water
“Fever-Tree produces high-quality tonics that enhance normal cocktails,” says Juan Fernandez, restaurant and bar manager at The Ballantyne in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Best of all, it has a solid lineup—Classic, Light, Mediterranean, Elderflower, Aromatic, Lemon, and Cucumber.”
All ingredients are harvested from natural sources, including quinine from the Democratic Republic of Congo, oils from Mexican bitter orange, 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 a straightforward, high-end, and readily available option.
Price at time of publish: $43
East Imperial Old World Tonic Water
“This is my favorite tonic water,” says Seth Falvo, bartender at The 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."
In 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 rosemary and lemon thyme of the Provence region of southern 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, director of food and beverage operations 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."
Price at time of publish: $53
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 wide range of flavors.
“I like the Q Spectacular Tonic due to its brightness,” says Jason Allmond, bartender at New Realm Brewing 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 a tonic, well, less tonic-like. Q Spectacular forgoes all of that and remains a bright, fizzy tonic, suitable for all kinds of beverages."
SeongHa Lee, former bartender at The Venetian Resort 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 it was the first.”
Price at time of publish: $21
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 the 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 Thai 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," says Laura Johnson, owner and founder of You and Yours Distilling Co. in San Diego. "All of their styles boast superior flavor profiles and are all naturally low in sugar, which I love. The Burma Tonic is an ideal mate for traditional London Dry [gins].”
Q Mixers Light Tonic Water
Q Mixers' Light Tonic Water skips the sugar in favor of a blend designed to replicate the flavors of the classic Spectacular Tonic without the added 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, director of Handle Bars New York consulting company 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, beverage development manager for Breakthru Beverage Group in Illinois, favors Q Tonics, too. "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.”
Price at time of publish: $23
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 is hand-crafted with care in small batches. You can order them individually or as part of a kit that includes all three of the brand’s signature tonic syrups: Elderflower, Extra Bitter, 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 or your favorite spirit, and enjoy.
Price at time of publish: $23
Tonic syrups are kept in the fridge and last far longer than an open can or bottle of tonic water.
What to Look for in Tonic Water
Tonic waters will, at the most basic level, contain soda water, quinine, and sugar and have something of a bitter taste. However, that's where the similarities end. Some brands add fruits, herbs, and other extracts to bring some depth to your classic gin and tonic experience—or any other cocktail you care to create with the tonic water. Some of the brands switch up sugar for agave, or leave out the sugar altogether.
Ideally, you want your tonic water to show signs of high carbonation—lots of bubbles that will keep your drink fizzy from start to finish, and not fall flat.
Price is a consideration, too. If you're new to tonic, consider an entry-level brand to become familiar with tonic water. If you're well-versed, you might consider trying something a little more expensive to experiment with and see how it impacts the taste of your cocktail. It depends on your budget and preferences.
Why is it called tonic water?
The word tonic comes from the Greek word tonikos, which translates to "invigorating," and is synonymous with words such as '"refresher” or “energizer."
What is special about tonic water?
Quinine comes from the bark of the cinchona tree, which is native to parts of central and South America, along with some of the Caribbean islands, and parts of western Africa. Historically, quinine, one of its ingredients, has been put in tonic water to ward off malaria.
What is the difference between tonic water and club soda?
Tonic water and club soda are both used in making cocktails, and they're both effervescent. However, tonic water contains quinine, soda water, and sugar, and has a bit of a bitter taste (if it's not infused with other ingredients). Club soda contains minerals that can include sodium chloride, potassium sulfate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium citrate, and disodium phosphate. Their flavor profile is different, so their use in cocktails won't be exactly the same as tonic water. Tonic adds a balanced bitter flavor and bubbles, whereas club soda adds a bit of saltiness and bubbles.
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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.