The history of the world’s most beloved cocktail is one steeped in mystery and medicine. Maybe that is why it is considered one of the more frequent drinks served in Southern homes for parties and gatherings. The South is embedded with its own particular mystery and romance and the gin and tonic is a perfect fit.
Though many stories abound over its origins, gin is traced back to 16th century Europe and a Dutch physician, Sylvus de Bouve, who distilled juniper berries into a drink as a treatment for patients with circulatory ailments. It didn’t take long for the spirit to make its way to Great Britain where by 1750, it is estimated over 11 million gallons were being consumed. Others have stated that European monks were the first to use a similar concoction as a cure for the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. Their drink was also made from distilling juniper berries and mixed with herbs.
Quinine, an extract from the bark of the Quinquina tree, found growing on the hills of the Andes Mountains, was known as a cure for chills and fevers. To the local tribes it was known as “fever tree.” Another mystery unfolds as many stories surround the origins of this magic cure.
One such story is attributed to the Countess of Cinchona, who fell ill while visiting South America. Given the substance of the Quinquina tree, the countess survived and those among her travelling companions re-named the tree, Cinchona tree, in her honor.
Another tale recounts those of Jesuit missionaries in South America who brought the treatment back with them to Europe. Known as “Jesuit powder,” the medicine is said to have been given to Charles II as a cure for fever.
Whatever the beginnings, the gin and tonic as we know it today, was once the medicine of choice for those suffering from malaria during the 19th century as Great Britain took over the governance of India. With so many British people flocking to the Indian subcontinent, they were not prepared for the humid climate and the dreaded effects of scurvy and malaria.
However, quinine is bitter, and many balked at drinking up the substance. It was only when British soldiers began mixing the quinine with water, sugar and of course, gin, that many could tolerate the cure. Adding a wedge of lime also helped diminish scurvy. By the end of the 19th century, gin and tonic was known as “the gentleman’s drink.”
Gin made its way to America in the 1700’s by way of the early colonists, and by 1830, it is said that more than 7 million gallons of pure alcohol was being consumed in saloons across the country. Temperance unions sprang up and not long after the turn-of-the-century took place, Prohibition was in full swing.
From 1920-1933, speakeasies, gangsters, outlaws and ordinary citizens, took to making their own gin spirits in what became known as “bathtub gin.” The mixtures were cheap and easy to make. Quality was not a concern and many of these gins caused severe health problems, some fatal.
As romantic, or, tragic, as the period of Prohibition was for America, this time in history gave us the cocktails we know today. Our ancestors mixed various flavorings and syrups with gin as to make it more appealing, and after Prohibition, gin was the most popular of spirits.
This now famous cocktail is simple to make and is favored on warm evenings and for summer parties. Four ingredients make up the gin and tonic, not far removed from the drink that saved the British Army over a century ago.
Here I have two recipes for gin and tonic; one a true classic, another for the spirit of 1920’s America.
The Classic Gin and Tonic
What you will need:
A highball glass (well chilled)
Dry gin (your choice of brand)
Tonic water (the best you can buy)
A wedge of lime
Fill the chilled highball glass with 50ml of your favorite gin over very cold ice (right from the freezer, don’t allow it to begin melting).
Add tonic water to taste.
Finish off with a wedge of lime.
Now for the Prohibition special, The Bee’s Knees
What you will need:
A cocktail glass
Dry gin (your choice)
Mix 2 ounces of dry gin with 3/4 ounces of honey syrup (made by mixing together 1 tablespoon of honey with 1/2 tablespoon of warm water).
Add 1/2 ounce of fresh lemon juice.
Pour the mixture into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake well.
Strain the mixture into a chilled glass.
Finish with a lemon twist as a garnish.
Resources: The Sipsmith Blog, sipsmith.com/gin-and-tonic-a-short-history-of, August 14, 2013