A tonic for good times
How a malaria preventive became a tippler's favourite
In recent years, gin has made something of a splash in the country’s watering holes. The high-end bars offer more types of gin than the usual foursome of Blue Riband, Bombay Sapphire, Beefeater and Tanqueray, and cocktails are not limited to martinis and gin and tonics. As a collateral, some of the attention gin has been getting has extended to the tonic.
Now tonic is usually regarded as the sidekick to the star, the Sancho Panza to gin’s Don Quixote. But that’s gradually changing as drinkers and restaurateurs realize that tonic is a beverage worth getting geeky over, that the mixer can be an equal partner in a gin and tonic. In Mumbai, 212 All Good, a health food restaurant in Lower Parel, produces its own tonic. Mumbai-based Svami, a new company that makes non-alcoholic beverages, will launch a line of tonic waters within a month’s time.
In the West, discerning drinkers can choose from a number of expensive gourmet tonics such as Fentimans, Fever Tree and Bradley’s. Fever Tree is available in India too—a pack of 24 bottles is currently retailing for Rs14,070 on Amazon. The brand of tonic most widely available in India, however, is Schweppes, a mixer that most G&T aficionados agree is too sweet.
Given that India is the birthplace of tonic, how is it that the demand for good tonic has been so slow to catch on?
The chief reason there are such few tonic brands is that the main ingredient, the right kind of quinine, is challenging to procure. It’s well known that quinine, which gives tonic its characteristic bitter flavour, was consumed by 19th century British officials in India to fight malaria. The bitter drug was mixed with soda and sugar to make it palatable—thus a basic form of tonic was born. Quinine is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, which is native to parts of South America. British horticulturists transported cinchona seeds and saplings to India, and after several failed passages, during which the plants perished, the first plantation was established in the Nilgiris in the 1860s.
Sahil Jatana, co-founder of Svami, uses quinine imported from Congo. He tried Indian quinine, both powdered cinchona bark as well as the chemically processed stuff used for certain anti-malaria medications, but was unhappy with the flavour profile. While the bark made the tonic muddy and was excessively bitter, the processed quinine wasn’t bitter enough.
Manu Chandra, who helms Toast & Tonic, the chic East Village-style restaurants in Bengaluru and Mumbai, tried various ways of making tonic at his lab in Bengaluru. Like Jatana, he found that it was impossible to get clear tonic using cinchona bark, so he used an imported chemical extract of quinine. Actually, most recipes for home-made tonic have cinchona bark as one of the ingredients, which is why the potions have a rusty hue. But most drinkers are familiar with clear tonic. “No one is used to brown tonic water, it’s supposed to be colourless," says Chandra. Jatana is a teetotaller, but he follows the advice of his partners Aneesh Bhasin, who runs the beverage discovery app Hipcask, and Rahul Mehra, co-founder of craft beer maker Gateway Brewing Co. Both believe the right tonic can enhance the flavour of gin.
Then there’s the matter of achieving a balance of bitter, tart and sweet flavours. Chandra tinkered with the extracts of several kinds of lemons, sugar syrup and water. His challenge, however, was making tonic on a substantial scale. Gin cocktails are best-sellers at Toast & Tonic. The Bengaluru and Mumbai outlets go through about 10 cases of two dozen 300ml bottles each every night. Chandra has arrived at a recipe but has to wait till he’s able to set up a production unit to make tonic on a large scale. The tricky part, he says, is to chill the tonic and carbonate it. “Sugar slows down the absorption of carbon dioxide. The ideal way to introduce fizziness is to chill it down to a low temperature and keep carbonation going for an extended period of time. I could only do it for a small batch."
Jatana adds quinine to sugar syrup, citric acid and water. The mix is treated with carbon dioxide in a brewing vessel for two-three days till it gets carbonated. The tonic at 212 All Good, on the other hand, is created from natural ingredients. The only exception is the quinine, which is produced locally.
Tanai Shirali, 212’s beverage and cocktail developer, boils a mix of grapefruit, pomelo, orange peel, cinnamon, bay leaves, coriander seeds and water. The mixture is allowed to steep for 12 hours and then strained. A gram of quinine is added to a litre of the concentrate. While preparing a cocktail, Shirali adds the tonic and some soda for fizziness to the gin. He prefers not to add sugar—he believes that will diminish the taste of the gin, which is infused with spices, chilli, orange and floral flavours such as hibiscus. Currently, he’s working on an alternative tonic made with a combination of fruit that hits the right note of bitterness without quinine. “Making tonic is something people don’t do" says Shirali, “and bars these days need to do stuff that’s different."