Tonic water was first enjoyed in 1825 when ingenious (or hard drinking, depending on how you look at it) British officers in the Indian Army improved their bitter anti-malaria medicine - Peruvian quinine extract - by mixing it with soda water, sugar, and gin. Instead of drinking the medicine with their troops at dawn, the officers figured out how to enjoy it at cocktail hour. The original gin and tonic was born, and it soon became the quintessential drink of the British Empire.
Tonic water’s story begins two centuries earlier, in 1638. The wife of the Spanish Viceroy in Peru, the Countess of Chinchon, had fallen violently ill with malaria. Her husband begged the local Incas for an antidote. In a show of generosity, the Incas instructed her to drink a portion containing the ground bark of the native “Quinquina" tree, which grew on the slopes of the Andes. The potion worked and she quickly recovered. In her honor, the Spanish renamed the Peruvian tree the “Cinchona” tree.
The ground bark was then imported to Europe and quickly prized. But Peru prohibited exporting Cinchona seeds. So, as colonialism and hard-drinking officers created more need, the supply of Peruvian Cinchona bark could not keep up with demand.
Prices skyrocketed - at one point, the cost of the bark powder was its weight in gold - and the bark was over harvested. The Cinchona tree became nearly extinct.
In 1862, Charles Ledger smuggled Cinchona seedlings out of Peru and sold them to the Dutch government. Holland set up large plantations in Java, their colony in Indonesia.
Until World War II, Indonesia supplied almost 95% of the world's quinine. However in the winter of 1942, Japan attacked and took control of Indonesia to secure oil for its war machine. With battles raging in areas with malaria, the Allies established a mini-Manhattan project, charging scientists with finding another source of quinine. The group soon discovered a way to produce a synthetic substitute. Following the war, the corporations producing tonic water elected to switch to this cheaper, artificial quinine. Tonic water lost the authentic ingredient that had defined it for centuries. Until now.