Posted on 30 November 2019
The humble Gin & Tonic is a rather fashionable affair. It’s the perfect companion to quench your thirst on a hot summer’s day and yet a poison that wouldn’t go overlooked in a quaint bar. It’s a concoction some bartenders swear is one of the hardest drinks to make. But despite its popularity, few know before earning a place on bar menus across the world it had served a somewhat different purpose.
When we look back at war, we often conjure up images of firefights, courageous feats and a pristine uniform. These, of course, are all true. But what’s often overlooked is the role and effect of illness, malnutrition and disease have upon an army. Early in the 19th century as Britain had begun its colonisation of India, it found itself fighting against a familiar foe. Despite its eradication in 19th century Europe, mosquito-borne disease was widespread to the point it slowed forces, crippled empires and brought wars to a standstill in the tropics. To fight the disease, a powder made of cinchona bark from the trees of Peru was issued in rations. Because of its anti-malarial properties, quinine had been called the secret weapon keeping British forces healthy through its colonial period. While it was the ingredients which kept soldiers healthy, it was how they had enjoyed it, which kept them in high spirits.
Quinine and the Queen’s soldiers have a great bond; Live History even called it “the cure-all for all colonialists”. British officers would receive portions of quinine in powder form. Potent to the palate, there were many attempts to dilute its taste and make it bearable. The best way, they had found, was adding sugar and soda. As for gin and how it made its way into the equation? Well, quite simply, that has a lot to do with the industry term ‘Navy Strength’. As British Naval forces brought in vital supplies and equipment, it seems gin was no exception—and for good reason, we say. What inevitably came next was one soldier, or a troop, who got a little playful with their daily dose of medicine and what a discovery they had made: the humble gin and tonic was born.
Remnants of quinine, tonic and its founding in India still exists today. The tonic brand Fever Tree, as you can imagine, takes its name from the colloquial term given to cinchona trees for their medicinal value. Indian, too, has become an industry term for a varietal of tonic which follows the original recipe. Fever Tree even ran a campaign last year called Raise a G&T to fight Malaria, donating £5 for every picture with the hashtag #MalariaMustDie. We could definitely drink to that. And there you have it, the humble story of a staple of the modern bar menu and its imperial past.