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The Military Origin of the Classic Gin and Tonic Cocktail

This drink is a lifesaver... literally. 

history gin and toxic cocktail
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some days, you just feel like you need a drink. Other days, you can't live without one. For hundreds—maybe thousands—of English troops, there's one drink that literally saved their lives: the gin and tonic. 

It all started when the Spanish learned that Quechua tribesmen in the 1700s (in what is now Peru) would strip the bark from cinchona trees and grind it to help stop fever-related shivering. The active ingredient in the cinchona power was a little chemical known as quinine. It didn't take long before Spain began to use the remedy to fight malaria.

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Eventually, the treatment made its way around the world, helping the British colonial government in India maintain order.

Once imperial powers realized it helped ease malaria's symptoms, cinchona became big business—but the active chemical, quinine, wasn't extracted from the cinchona until the 1820s. At that point, the chemical became easier to dose and easier to produce. Luckily for the British Empire—and not so much for many areas of the world—this was just in time for the New Age of Imperialism.

European powers were expanding rapidly, forming new colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Once the British were in India, they needed the quinine to help ward off malarial infection. There was just one problem: the bitter taste of quinine made it a horrible thing to ingest. So, the British, like every European before them who had to imbibe ground cinchona bark, mixed it with booze.

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While the French mixed the cinchona with wine, the British mixed theirs with gin, sugar, and, often, a bit of lemon. Later on, this mixture became even more pleasant when a Swiss jeweler of German descent, Johann Jakob Schweppe, created a mixture of bubbly soda water, citrus, and quinine—and called it "Schweppes Indian Tonic Water."

By 1869, Indian companies were manufacturing their own soda water and lemon tonics. With easy access to the soda and one of Britain's favorite spirits, the redcoats were free to continue colonizing the subcontinent unabated by pesky mosquitoes.

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Today's tonic water has much less quinine in it. To prevent malaria, you'd need between 500-1,000 milligrams of quinine, but consuming an entire liter of tonic water today would only get you about 83-87 milligrams. Quinine alone isn't even an effective treatment for the disease anymore, as malarial parasites have grown resistant to the drug. These days, a drug cocktail is more effective at malaria prevention than quinine alone.

So, bring along your Hendrick's and Tonic, but don't forget to bring your malaria pills, too.