Tonic water is a type of soda water that is most often used in mixed drinks. The carbonated beverage includes several flavoring botanicals, including quinine derived from cinchona bark, which accounts for its dry, bitter taste. Famously poured into the gin and tonic, tonic water is a versatile, refreshing soda for various cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks enjoyed the world over.
Tonic Water vs. Club Soda
Club soda is unflavored, unsweetened carbonated water. Unlike seltzer (or plain soda water), it includes a sodium ingredient, such as salt, and sometimes other additives. While the two look the same and are equally refreshing, tonic water has a completely different taste. Its bitterness is immediately recognizable and, despite its dry palate, tonic contains a sweetener. Where club soda is sugar-free and has zero carbs and calories, tonic water averages 114 calories, 30 grams of carbohydrates, and 30 grams of sugar per 12-ounce serving.
- Ingredients: quinine, botanicals, sugar, carbonated water
- Calories per 12 ounces: 114
- Taste: bitter, dry, sparkling
- Serve: on ice, cocktails, mixed drinks
What Is Tonic Water Made From?
Modern tonic water begins like other soft drinks: A flavored syrup is mixed with carbonated water. Tonic syrup ingredients vary by brand. It commonly includes natural quinine (or an artificially derived substitute), citrus peels or oils, and a sweetener (cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup are typical). Other botanicals may include allspice, cinnamon, elderflower, gentian, ginger, lavender, and lemongrass.
Quinine is tonic water's defining ingredient and the reason it glows under a black light. It is a natural alkaloid extracted from red or yellow cinchona bark (sometimes called Peruvian bark). The cinchona tree (Cinchona ledgeriana) is native to South America—particularly Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador—where it is known as quinquina. In the 1600s, Europeans witnessed its use among indigenous people who made tea of the ground bark to reduced shivering. Associating this with a symptom of malaria, quinine was found to be an effective preventative for the disease.
Quinine's medicinal use helped fuel European colonialism and the slave trade. Dutch explorers introduced cinchona seeds to their colonies in Indonesia and Java in the 1800s; later, it was introduced to parts of Africa. Cinchona trees continue to be cultivated in these areas for quinine use.
The British East India Company is tied to the concept of tonic water—"tonic" implying its medicinal qualities. Adding water, sugar, and lime to the quinine malaria treatment made it more palatable. Gin was introduced to the mix, creating the first gin and tonic in the early 19th century.
Quinine Health Warning
Consuming an excess of quinine can cause quinine toxicity or cinchonism. This can lead to hearing or vision loss, as well as cardiac distress or seizures. In high doses (often in medication form), quinine can interact with certain medications, and it is not recommended for people with some medical conditions. The U.S. FDA limits how much quinine can be present in tonic water: 83 parts per million are deemed safe for beverage consumption, and the label must clearly state if the tonic includes quinine. Despite these warnings, it is generally safe for most people to drink a moderate amount of tonic water daily.
What Does Tonic Water Taste Like?
Tonic water is most notable for its semi-bitter taste. The carbonated water's fizziness softens that, and many tonics have citrus, herbal, and spice notes. It is considerably drier than sodas like ginger ale, and it's rare to find a tonic that tastes syrupy.
How to Drink Tonic Water
Tonic water is most often used in alcoholic mixed drinks, but it's also enjoyable on its own when poured over ice. As a nonalcoholic drink, a splash of lime juice (called lime and tonic) gives it a nice boost with the tart citrus balancing the tonic's bitterness. Tonic's dry profile makes it an excellent dinner drink and a palate cleanser you can sip between bites or courses.
While it's famously mixed with gin, other liquors work well with tonic water. Vodka is nearly as popular, and Irish whiskey is a favorite among whiskey styles. Tonic can also be mixed with fortified wines and, for drinkers who really enjoy a bitter drink, with bitter spirits such as Aperol and Campari for the ultimate apéritif. In mixed drinks, tonic often appears in simple recipes with just a few ingredients. It pairs very well with citrus juices and berries and is an excellent alternative to sweeter sodas in some cocktail recipes.
Nonalcoholic tonic drinks are increasingly more popular. In coffee shops, floating a shot of espresso on top of a glass of tonic is common. It can also be mixed with cold brew coffee for a refreshing afternoon pick-me-up. For a sweet, floral touch, mix tonic water with an herb-infused syrup such as lavender.
How to Use Tonic Syrup
Rather than buy tonic water, you can top tonic syrup with carbonated water. Due to the risk of cinchonism, homemade tonic water needs to be properly diluted to make it safe to drink.
The tonic syrup labels should provide a recommendation: typically one part syrup to a minimum of three parts soda. Some syrup is best with five to seven parts soda. When mixing it with alcohol, it's common to use 1/4 to 1/2 ounce of tonic syrup with two ounces each of liquor and soda water.
Making tonic syrup at home carries even greater risk, and many recipes use far more cinchona bark than is safe. The whole bark is easier to filter than cinchona powder, though that comes with risks as well. Due to the difficulty of ensuring that a harmless amount is used, it is best to avoid making tonic syrup with cinchona bark at home; leave it to professionals with proper testing equipment. Instead, you can make a quinine-free tonic syrup; quassia bark or gentian root replicate quinine's bitter taste rather well.
Anyone interested in tonic water is well aware of the gin and tonic and vodka tonic, but the soda is far more useful. Explore tonic's versatility in proven drink recipes, then give it a try in other soda highballs.
- Autumn Spiced Tonic
- Cherry Gin and Tonic
- Strawberry Gin and Tonic
- Whiskey Tonic
- White Port and Tonic
In 1858, British businessman Erasmus Bond sold the first "Indian tonic water." It was followed up in 1870 by Schweppes, one of the best-known tonic water brands today. Around 2000, there was a renewed interest in tonic water mixed drinks. Several smaller soda companies began to produce tonic water, and the overall quality has greatly improved.
- Fentiman's Traditional Tonic Water
- Fever-Tree Tonic Waters
- Gents Swiss Roots Tonic Water
- Q Drinks Tonic
- Zevia Mixers Zero-Calorie Tonic Water
Tonic syrups are increasingly more available as well. Many of these companies produce the syrup in small batches, giving them the hand-crafted touch:
- El Guapo
- Jack Rudy Cocktail Co.
- Liber & Co.
- Small Hand Foods
- Top Hat
Hall HN, Tatham AJ. Recovery from blindness following accidental quinine overdose. Pract Neurol. 2017;17(6):469-471
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. “Quinine (Oral Route) Description and Brand Names.” Mayo Clinic. February 1, 2021
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Code Of Federal Regulations Title 21, Volume 3. Part 172, Sec. 175.575 Quinine
English, Camper. Quinine, Tonic Water, Cinchona Bark Safety in Cocktails. CocktailSafe.org