Sunday, April 4, 2010

Tonic, Tonic Everywhere and Not a Drop to ...

So after becoming increasingly interested in cocktails, it was growing clear that there was still a road that we had yet to travel.

Making Tonic at Home

After doing some preliminary research we dug up some recipes and how-to advice:

From Jeffrey Morganthaler
4 cups water
1 cup chopped lemongrass (roughly one large stalk)
¼ cup powdered cinchona bark
zest and juice of 1 orange
zest and juice of 1 lemon
zest and juice of 1 lime
1 tsp whole allspice berries
¼ cup citric acid
¼ tsp Kosher salt
~ 3 cups agave syrup

From a commenter further down the above link, this slight variaion was designed for 209 gin:
4 Cups: Water
1 1/4 Cups: Lemongrass, julienned
Zest & juice of 2 Limes
1/2 whole Star Anise
1/4 Cup: powdered cinchona bark
1/4 Cup: Citric Acid
1/2 Tsp: whole allspice berries
1/4 Tsp: whole Cardamom pods, bruised
1/4 Tsp: Kosher Salt
This recipe was also found, along with the somewhat amusing anecdote of the author at this foodie blog.
4 cups of water
3 cups pure cane sugar
3 Tbsp quinine (powdered cinchona bark)
6 Tbsp. powdered citric acid – check bulk bins at grocery stores
3 limes
3 stalks lemongrass, chopped
The Method

We used the first reference for methods and for the choice of sweetener (agave syrup). In order to filter we had very good success by both using cheesecloth and pouring the liquid off the top, leaving much of the sediment behind.

We decided to make both the original recipe espoused by Mr. Morganthaler (which I call mix #1), as well as the variation for 209 (which I'll call mix #2). (We purchased some 209 for this purpose.) We used Tensing Momo as our supplier for the Cinchona bark.

For the relative rankings, we compared the tonics both on their own, and paired with the gin. In the case of mix #2, we also paired it with 209.


For comparison, we purchased tonic by Fever Tree, Q, and 365 (the Whole Foods store brand).

We had a wide range of results about each of the two tonics. We chose Plymouth Gin, which seems to be acknowledged as a good reference gin for gin and tonics among most of the sources we could find.

From here out, as mentioned above, I'll refer to the original recipe as Mix #1 and the variation for 209 as Mix #2 for brevity.

Tasting notes:

Q - Q didn't score very well on its own. It's much less sweet than the others (it has about half as much sugar as Fever Tree). When paired with gin, it fared much better, its lack of sugar giving plenty of space for the gin's flavors to shine. On the other hand, the combination was much closer to a gin and soda than you expect, and it was still considered somewhat too boring by most of the testers.

Fever Tree - Fever Tree was by far our favorite commercial tonic of the batch. It was pleasant and light on its own, and its slightly greater levels of sugar still left plenty of room for the gin to assert itself. It seemed that it was more of a partner with the gin than the Q.

365 - The Whole Foods store brand held its own better than one might expect. It may have been the easiest on the palate of all the naked tonics. Once mixed with gin, it was called 'Tonic Candy', and 'Gin and Tonic for Kids' by one tester. Its unassertive character and sweet almost 7-up like flavor was fine, but it was the least bitter of the tonics, and this may have actually worked against it when paired with the assertive Plymouth. It may fare better if paired with Sapphire or Hendricks, with their slightly less Junipery and more subtle aromatics.

Mix #1 - Jeffery Morganthaler's recipe did quite well overall, chosen by three out of four panelists as their favorite, when paired with the gin. On it's own, however, its mulled character (from the allspice), and the very floral almost patchouli-like aroma from the Cinchona Bark overwhelmed the palate. Personally, I found that it slightly too tart as well. We left the syrup out until the end so that we could adjust the sweetness to match our mood. This gave us some flexibility to reduce it slightly from the amount called for, which I think allowed us to really dial in a sweetness level that balanced the gin.

Mix #2 - This combination may have been hampered by the fact that it was boiled longer. Since it had Cardamom Pods that it was trying to infuse, we left it on the burner another 5 minutes or so, which seems to have resulted in much more bark infusion, resulting in more of the odd floral character, as well as slightly more bitter. This was the bottom of the barrel on all counts. It had an odd aftertaste when considered on its own, and when pared with the Plymouth was not awful, but it just couldn't quite find any supporters. We paired it with the 209 only to be overwhelmed by the piles of cardamom (which is almost undetectable in the pairing with Plymouth or on its own.) 209 already had a notable amount of cardamom, and when tickled by the additional amount in the tonic, it overflowed making it almost undrinkable; it was drunk, do not fear, we have an overwhelming sense of duty when it comes to drinking gin, but it was nearly sink-bound.

Overall rankings:

These are from memory, so I will entreat my fellow testers to reorder as they remember generally. I believe, however, that this represents the consensus of opinion among our group.


1) Fever Tree
2) 365
3) Mix #1
4) Q
5) Mix #2

With Gin:

1) Mix #1
2) Fever Tree
3) Q
4) 365
5) Mix #2 (w/ Plymouth)
6) Mix #2 (w/ 209)


Overall results are hard to evaluate. Since you're probably going to drink the tonic with gin, I'm tempted to mirror the w/gin results. Among the store-bought tonics, the overall winner is clear: Fever Tree was nice on its own, great with gin, and also for better or for worse, the most carbonated of the ones we tried. Once we include our tonics in the mix, the overall winner is more cloudy. I think that the floral character of our bark means that I still can't place it as #1, but it definitely takes the #2 spot in my estimation.

Final thoughts

All in all it was a good time, we were able to drink some gin and appear thoughtful at the same time. I was surprised at how different the result tasted from standard tonics (and how different the tonics we tasted were from each other). If you have some free time, and some inclination, you can create a result as good as the best tonics we could find.

At ~$8 for four bottles for the boutique tonics, you could really save some dough, as well. If you're not as crafty, Fever Tree is very very good, and as a slightly more budget version, even the Whole Foods 365 brand is better (in our opinion) than Schweppes or Canada Dry.

One final note, Mr. Morganthaler mentioned that the bark from Tensing Momo was particularly floral. To that end, we've ordered from a few other sources as well to see if we can push home-made tonic to an undisputed #1 in all categories. Perhaps there is an edit in this post's future.

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