When you think of quinine water do you think of stout, pink-faced British sea captains being revived by gin and tonics? “Just the Tonic: A Natural History of Tonic Water” (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, $25) turns that image on its ear.
Written by Kim Walker, a medical herbalist who is working on her Ph.D. on cinchona (the South American tree from which the bitter compound quinine is derived) and Mark Nesbitt, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the book tells the engaging and multifaceted story of the popular beverage.
They collaborated on this tonic water tale, says Nesbitt, because “there are loads of books about gin but nothing on its essential counterpart, tonic, even though quinine (key ingredient of tonic) is a big botanical story.”
Richly illustrated with botanical drawings, posters and advertisements touting the benefits of the numerous tonics made from cinchona throughout the decades, the book winds its way through the natural history and horticulture of the “fever tree,” dips into malarial medicine, pharmacology and chemistry, traces the invention of “aerated” soda water and the rise of the soft drink industry, and discusses the roots of mixology, with a quick detour to the use and production of ice in beverage culture.
After several decades of popularity in India and China, gin finally comes into play as tonic’s partner in Britain in the 1920s — before that the cocktail was considered a refresher in those Asian tropic climes rather than a standard drink order.
Says Nesbitt in an email, “the gin and tonic did not evolve as an anti-malarial (we were always suspicious of that story), nonetheless the G&T is so clearly of Indian origin. I hadn’t quite appreciated what the word ‘tonic’ in tonic water has a specific medical meaning about boosting the body’s systems.”
The minuscule amount of quinine in a glass of water, it seems, would have no effect on preventing or curing the disease.
“Tonics were a category of medicine that helped to strengthen and tone body systems, nerve tonics, digestive tonics, etc.,” Walker said. “The important thing is that the first ‘tonic waters’ were not aimed at treating malaria — they were general digestives.”
The book’s last chapter is devoted to historically significant cocktail recipes (grog and tonic, anyone?), included so that readers can put to use their newly gained diverse knowledge of all things tonic.
Though Walker and Nesbitt hail from academia, their book moves briskly and enjoyably across all these disciplines, blithely bursting myth bubbles along the way.