Tonic Water

Depending on how you see it, I had the good fortune to celebrate my 21st birthday in Italy. While many an American young adult spend the first night of their 21st year of life blind drunk, staggering from bar to bar in an alcohol-fueled frenzy, I spent mine calmly indulging in fabulous thin-crust pizza and prosecco at La Mela with a few of my closest friends. While I have had some rather wild experiences in my time, on my 21st birthday I did not:

-drink whisky, gin, tequila or vodka
-make out with a stranger/bartender
-embarrass myself (any more than usual)
-reveal any private body parts in public
-throw up
-pass out
-wake up next morning with acidic hangover beside stranger/bartender/own vomit

I might have had more fun if it weren’t for the fact that Italians don’t really do cocktails.

During my first stay in Venice when I was 18 and obsessed by the fact that I could get wasted any night (or, er, morning) of the week, I asked a bartender to make me a mixed drink. He inquired as to what I wanted, and I told him to be creative. He very excitedly got out a thick book, spent the next half hour meticulously measuring things into a shaker, then presented me with a frilly glass of murky liquid. I took a sip, tried not to grimace, and thanked him, I’m sure, with an overly generous tip and many an, ‘E buonissimo! Molte grazie!’ and bats of the eyelashes. (He was, if not a stellar mixologist, cute, after all.)

It was in Italy, however, that I tried my first gin and tonic. At a club in Bologna one night, I sipped a friend’s drink, which, up until that moment, I had considered a second-rate old-man type beverage not worthy of my hard-earned (i.e. financially aided) euros. If it didn’t take the bartender half an hour of careful measuring, surely it wasn’t worth drinking?

Wrong. Until that sweltering evening (during that famous 2002 European heatwave) I had never tasted anything more refreshing. Sweet, tart, bitter, and bubbly, I fell in love.

It is at a week-long music camp called Sweet’s Mill, located in the sweltering Sierra Foothills, that I most appreciate g&ts. Most days are spent in the shade or pond attempting to escape the oppressive heat, and gratefully imbibing frosty beverages when the coffeehouse can be bamboozled into giving out crushed ice. Tonic seems particularly apropos in those mosquito-infested hills, perhaps due to the anti-malarial properties of quinine.

Sadly, most tonic water is made from high fructose corn syrup and can only be purchased in scary places such as Safeway (or Unsafeway, as we call it) or BevMo.Sugar-free tonic is even scarier with its artificial sweeteners, and you are pretty much SOL if you are a g&t loving diabetic.Better options have emerged in the past few years, with Stirrings and Q both bottling tasty tonics, made with sugar or agave. Unfortunately, these waters cost more than gin itself, even the good stuff, although not, interestingly, as much as HP printer ink. (Not even human blood isthat expensive.) Whole Paycheck’s 365 brand makes tonic from sugar in cans, a cheaper alternative, and my favorite option if you don’t have the wherewithal to make your own.

But this blogger had been pondering making her own tonic for some time.

My good friend and former co-baker at Petite Patisserie, Kelly, emailed one day saying she’d had a homemade g&t at Boot and Shoe Service in her East Bay ‘hood. I excitedly asked her all about it, and she kindly forwarded a few interesting articles, and some tips on where to purchase quinine bark in the Bay Area. It seems I was not the only bojon gourmet looking for tonic action. The Food Dude of Portland wrote an absolutely hilarious article on the process several years ago. He used powdered cinchona bark, from whence quinine is derived, and the resulting syruprequired several hours of laborious straining. I wagered that using the whole bark would be a lot simpler, and, with Kelly’s help, tracked some down. My intrepid friend Calvaleigh gave it a go first, and mixed us phenomenal drinks in Ashland a few weeks ago.

So I came up with the following recipe, based on Food Dude’s, which, for maybe $12 worth of ingredients, made five cups of tonic concentrate, or enough for forty drinks. (Suck on those ice cubes, Q!) Cinchona bark is combined with lemongrass, citrus peel, citric acid, lemon balm and water and simmered to make a sort of tisane. It is then strained and combined with sugar and citrus juice. It should keep in the fridge for several weeks at least. Cinchona bark can be found at Duc Loi or Lhasa Karnak; citric acid is carried at Rainbow and, I believe, Berkeley Bowl.

I made some drinks with the New Amsterdam gin we happened to have in the freezer, but am looking forward to trying our local Junipero, made by the folks at Anchor Brewing, and recommended by Food Dude via the New York Times. Another local gin I’m quite fond of is No. 209, made in Napa. If glycemic indices are an issue for you, you can try making the tonic with agave syrup. You may want to reduce the amount to 3 cups, though, as it can be sweeter than sugar.

I am quite pleased (i.e. drunk) with the results, and hope you either give this a go, or at least come over sometime in the next week before we leave for Sweet’s Mill for a g&t. Just don’t go flirting with the bartender; she’s already sown her wild cinchona (as it were).

Drink me:

Hibiscus Tequila Spritzers
Indian Summer Blues (with Cardamom, Rose and Gin)

Homemade Tonic

Adapted from The Food Dude

Makes 5 cups, or enough for 40 drinks

This makes a fairly mild, complex and citrusy tonic. I add bitters to the drinks when I mix them, but I plan to try doubling the cinchona bark next time for more bitterness and bite.

I found Mamà brand quinine bark (pictured above) at an Asian/Latin market called Duc Loi in the Mission district of San Francisco. You can also buy or order quinine (cinchona) bark from Lhasa Karnak in Berkeley. Lhasa Karnak’s cinchona bark comes finely chopped, and a friend who used 3 tablespoons of it in this recipe claimed that its bitterness was much too strong (though others have claimed that it’s just right!) so you may want to start with half the amount of cinchona if you use a different brand than Mamà.

2 limes
1 lemon
one package (.37 ounce) Mamà brand quinine (cinchona) bark pieces (a scant 3 tablespoons of pieces measuring about 1/2 inch square) (see headnote for sources)
1 cup chopped lemongrass (from about 3 stalks)
1/2 cup fresh lemon balm or lemon verbena leaves (optional)
6 tablespoons citric acid
4 cups water
4 cups sugar

Using a sharp knife, vegetable peeler or zester, pare off the colorful peel of the citrus fruits leaving the white pith behind. Combine the peel, bark, lemongrass, lemon balm, citric acid and water in a large stainless steel saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh strainer (or cheesecloth, or a coffee filter if there are any fine particles that bother you.)

Rinse out the saucepan and combine the flavored water with the sugar. Bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugar, remove from the heat and add the juice from the limes and lemon. Let cool. Pour into glass bottles and store in the fridge for at least several weeks. The flavors will meld with time.

Gin and Tonic

Makes 1 drink

1 ounce (2 tablespoons) cooled tonic syrup
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) gin (such as New Amsterdam, No. 209 or Junipero)
4 drops Angostura bitters
ice cubes
sparkling water
1 – 2 lime wedges

Combine the syrup, gin and bitters in a glass. Add the ice, squeeze in the lime wedges and add them as well, and top with sparkling water. Give it a stir, and enjoy.

16 thoughts on “Tonic Water”

  1. I'm making this tonic syrup right now (thank you for the cinchona bark!!)and the house smells exquisite. While I'm straining it, I will also be straining my homemade grenadine – cocktails at my place?

  2. I've been looking at at least a half dozen recipes for making my own tonic water (I've been looking for interesting non-alcholic drinks since I'm in the midst of a cluster headache cycle (will have to add the gin when they're over)) and your recipe makes the most sense! I ordered my bark (non powder) today and can't wait till it arrives to try it!
    Thanks for your post, you saved me considerable trial and error.

  3. We kept some around for almost a year, and it was fine. I'd say 'indefinitely,' what with all that citric acid and sugar, but don't know for absolute sure.

  4. Made my first batch with your recipe, and it's delicious! Almost as good as the G & T you made at the Mill. ;) This is one of my new favorite things.

  5. Thank you for posting this recipe! I've read through the others online (including Food Dude) and didn't know if I had the stamina to make that version. I'm having trouble finding the Cinchona bark online. Do you know where it can be ordered from? I live in the Midwest and don't have access to the markets you listed in your post. Do Asian markets typically carry it?

  6. Hi, Jane! It looks like Lhasa Karnak (, an herb store in Berkeley, CA, will ship to anywhere in the U.S. They carry cinchona bark, though it is a different brand than the one I used and, I believe, comes in smaller bits (though not powdered, so no worries about Food Dude-style straining disasters). One person I know made this recipe with Lhasa Karnak quinine, and said that the bitterness was way too strong, so you may want to try halving with amount if you go with this. Let us know how it all goes. Cheers!

  7. Hi Alanna…I've been suffering from leg cramps and I believe quinine is good for that. (the gin might help, too, but that's not for me!)
    I've tried the bottled stuff but the sugars and artificial sweeteners are truly toxic. I'll happily try this recipe; going to order from Lhasa Karnak. Thanks so much!

    1. Leg cramps are no fun – I'm sorry you've been suffering from them. Hope this tonic helps! I've heard taking calcium supplements can also do the trick – but that's much less tasty. : )

  8. Very fun to come across this blog with some very nice photos of the process. I just put my first batch ever on yesterday and went into the straining process today. Looks good so far!

    However, I am looking for the perfect water now to mix with. I bought myself one of those fancy refillable gas bottles so I can use still, but do you have any still water to recommend. The bottled soda water here in Australia is just not there yet as we deal with just Schweppes still..

    Appreciate some suggestions. :)

    1. Hi Jakob! I can’t wait to hear how you like the tonic. :) I use tap water and I have a fancy carbon filter from Multi-Pure that makes the water taste super clean and good. Plus it’s way better for the environment than buying bottles. That said, I would go with something in glass if using bottled as plastic scares me (and tastes terrible, too).

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