Tonic water contains a small amount of quinine, a drug once used to treat malaria. Quinine comes from the bark of the cinchona tree and it was commonly used as a drug for many maladies for centuries until the development of penicillin and other antibiotics. Large doses of quinine can cause allergic reactions in some people. Other problems can include skin reaction, vascular and kidney complications. Most people experience no reaction at all.
Newer drugs that contain less quinine are now used as anti-malarial medication and quinine has lost FDA approval for previous doses. But quinine is still added to a sweetened soda water for people who enjoy their gin and tonic or vodka tonic with lime. The small amount of quinine in the drink is not considered harmful in any way. A British officer in India discovered the benefits of quinine water in the early 1800’s during the time of the British Raj. He knew the quinine was bitter yet he wanted his soldiers to have it as an anti-malaria drug. The bitter powder was mixed with sugar, soda and water. He knew that adding it to gin would encourage his troops to drink it.
Quinine was once prescribed for leg cramps. The drug was then taken off the market. But many people drink a glass of quinine water and find that it helps with nocturnal cramping. Other medications are available for this problem.
“Mosquitoes don’t bother me,” insists a man who has lived in Central America for several years. Malaria has been eliminated in Panama and several other countries but people are still bothered by “no-see-ums”. This gentleman, who enjoys his vodka and tonic with lime every evening, will tell you that it keeps the pesky stingers away because they don’t like his bitter blood. There is some scientific evidence to support this theory since quinine was once used against mosquito-borne malaria virus in the bloodstream. DEET, the most common topical repellant, emits a bitter odor or taste to flying insects.
Quinine water is a clear carbonated drink. The alkaloid or “bitters” in quinine can soothe a tummy troubled by minor indigestion. The tonic water on the market today from many companies contains carbonated water, sugar, citric acid, potassium sorbate as a preservative and quinine. Other natural sweetening products can be used in place of sugar. Diet soda versions are also available. Tonic water can be made without highfructose corn syrup, phosphoric acid or food coloring. Read the label when buying a bottle or can.
Quinine or tonic water can be added to cranberry, orange, pineapple or other juices for people who don’t want to drink it straight. Any number of non-alcoholic cocktails can be made using tonic water. It can be consumed straight or over ice on a hot day. The combination of quinine and the citric flavoring makes a refreshing carbonated drink with a little lime or lemon added. This restores potassium lost through perspiration.
Quinine water is generally used as a mixer with gin or vodka. This is the bitter lemon drink popular in the UK and Europe. Quinine water is naturally fluorescent under black light which adds to its fun at parties. Next time you order a gin and tonic, think of India in the 1800’s and the British soldiers who developed and enjoyed this now legendary drink.