If you were not yet aware, August 20 is World Mosquito Day. Leave it to the British to name a day after a notorious vector of plague and pestilence, but it was driven by Sir Ronald Ross’ discovery in 1897 that female mosquitos are responsible for transmitting malaria. Not to leave well enough alone, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine holds annual Mosquito Day celebrations, complete with parties and exhibitions. Thankfully, though, the British also invented the venerable Gin and Tonic, our Drink of the Day.
But first a word about quinine, the definitive ingredient in tonic water. The cinchona – a large shrub or small tree – is indigenous to South America. It’s bark, also known as Peruvian Bark or Jesuit’s Bark, was renowned by the native peoples for its medicinal properties. The Jesuit missionaries camping out in South America during the colonial days of the European powers learned about it from the natives. Cinchona bark is full of various alkaloids, most notably quinine, and in powdered form was first used to treat a European in South America around 1630.
Spain brought the first cinchona bark to Europe in the mid-17th century. That was a good thing, because until then the accepted treatments in Europe for fevers and malaria were pretty primitive: things like blood-letting, amulets, the application of pickled herrings to the feet, even eating spider webs. By 1820 French chemists had isolated quinine as the active ingredient and an effective antimalarial agent was in hand.
This treatment for malaria was particularly beneficial to British colonies located where the disease ran rampant. India, which we first discussed via the founding of the East India Company and the East India cocktail, was the jewel of the British Empire. Malaria was a mortal threat to anyone there, so quinine was a very big deal.
Problem was, it didn’t taste so great and a daily prophylactic dose wasn’t the highlight of the day. Alkaloids like quinine are extremely bitter, so the Officer Class naturally elected to take the remedy with sugar and gin to make it a bit more pleasant. After all, if a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, a slug of gin makes it even better. But the real drinking breakthrough came in 1858 when Erasmus Bond patented an “improved aerated tonic liquid” that contained quinine, aka tonic water.
Suddenly, the Gin and Tonic was born and as Sir Winston Churchill once noted, “Gin and tonic has saved more Englishman’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”
Gin and Tonic
- Highball Glass
- 2 oz Gin
- Tonic water
- Garnish: lime or lemon wedge or wheel
- Place pith helmet on head.
- Fill highball glass with ice.
- Add gin and top with tonic water. You are seeking about a 2:1 ratio of tonic to gin.
- Garnish with lemon or lime.