Quintessential Quinine – Refreshing Takes on the Gin and Tonic

Rum and coke. Vodka cranberry. Whiskey soda with lime.

Drinks named for their ingredients are the epitome of simple, but none are as refreshing as the gin and tonic, which current summer heat makes mandatory. But don’t let the simplicity of the recipe convince you that the G&T isn’t complex.

(This article was originally published in the 2017 July B issue of The Tulsa Voice.)

In the craft cocktail world, tonic syrups are a popular choice as they allow the drink maker to dial up or down the flavor. These syrups are added to the gin then topped with carbonated water—the mixture of syrup and bubbles becoming the tonic. With ingredients like cinchona bark, citrus zest, lemongrass, and cardamom, these recipes create a G&T that’s darker in color and rich in flavor. Cinchona bark is the one mandatory ingredient, as it’s where quinine is derived—the ingredient that provides tonic water its distinct bitterness.

While cinchona has been used medicinally in South America since before recorded history, it was Europeans that used it to prevent malaria. When stationed in India, the British Navy would add gin and club soda to their daily dose of quinine to offset the bitterness.

Both Hodges Bend (823 E. 3rd St. Tulsa, OK) and Valkyrie (13 E. M.B. Brady St. Tulsa, OK) make house tonic syrups. Hodges Bend’s recipe results in a sweeter G&T with a balanced citrus brightness, while Valkyrie’s yields a more prominent and pleasant bitterness from the cinchona bark. If you’re interested in trying a tonic syrup at home, check out Strong Tonic, which is made in Oklahoma City and available throughout town, or go the DIY route and make your own. For my recipe, click here.

Prairie Brewpub (223 N. Main St. Tulsa, OK), though better known for its selection of local beers, also serves a G&T that you won’t find on the menu. In true brewpub style, they offer a hopped G&T made with hopped gin, hop tonic, and garnished with an expressed orange peel. This is the gin and tonic for the fan of IPAs.

Saturn Room (209 N. Boulder Ave. Tulsa, OK) adds an exotic spin by making a tiki tonic syrup, which includes ginger, dried hibiscus petals, and fresh orchids to the usual lineup of tonic ingredients. The orchids give it a slight earthiness, while the hibiscus contributes refreshing tartness.

With a little creativity, the classic gin and tonic can be adapted to suit many preferences and fulfill summer cocktail desires. Try these adaptions:

  • Garnish with lemon, cucumber, or grapefruit instead of the classic lime.
  • Make ice cubes with star anise or another spice or herb frozen inside.
  • Add a few dashes of bitters. Cardamom, orange, rhubarb, and aromatic are good choices.
  • Use premium tonic water like Fever Tree or Q. This is one of the simplest ways to drastically improve your G&T. (Read my full tonic water review here.)

Caution: Measure cinchona bark precisely. Over consumption of quinine can cause cinchonism. You won’t die, but you could experience mild symptoms such as sweating, blurred vision, impaired hearing, abdominal pain, dizziness, and nausea to name a few. More severe symptoms could include temporary deafness, temporary blindness, and abnormal heartbeat.

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