The Espionage in Your Gin & Tonic
Tim Warrillow will go to the end of the Earth—or at least the jungles of the Congo—to find the perfect ingredient for the best artisanal gin & tonic in the world.
Having never seen a rocket launcher up close and personal before, except, perhaps, on the TV news, Tim Warrillow found himself face to face with one back in 2007 during a trip to the eastern reaches of the Congo. While dealing with a teenage soldier, the weapon slung nonchalantly across his right shoulder, at an impromptu “toll booth,” Warrillow quickly realized that he was on the most dangerous—and most important—special ops mission of his life.
Like a character out of a John LeCarré novel, he had left his house in the prosaic suburbs of London, kissed his wife and kid goodbye and headed to the airport. Dressed to blend in and carrying just a few possessions, including a beat-up old cellphone and a roll of dollars stuffed into his sock, he flew to Nairobi and then to Rwanda before driving across the war–torn country and finally over the border into the steamy Congo bush. At the end of the long and dusty road was his final destination, a plantation run by German brothers.
Warrillow isn’t a spy, a Foreign Service agent or a peacekeeper. He hadn’t traveled around the world to buy illicit drugs, ivory, guns, or other contraband. What he was after was a much rarer and highly desirable commodity: pure pharmaceutical-grade quinine powder. As co-founder of the boutique British soda company Fever-Tree, he visited the Congo to see the source of the key ingredient in tonic water, his marquee product.
Welcome to the new world of artisanal tonic, where the ingredients come from the farthest corners of the Earth. The recent rebirth of cocktails and the introduction of ever-pricier gin—tonic’s perfect partner—kicked off the trend. (Warrillow’s business partner, Charles Rolls, in fact, used to own gin stalwart Plymouth before starting Fever-Tree.)
So essential is quinine to the bubbly, bitter beverage that Fever-Tree’s name reflects the nickname for the cinchona tree, whose bark—which is turned into quinine—has been used to fight fever-inducing malaria since at least the mid-17th century.
The cinchona was first identified in Peru in the early 1600s. Once its healing properties became well known, Europeans ignited a mad scramble to find samples.
“The stocks of these cinchona trees were devastated in the process, as all of these plant hunters were there ripping up the trees,” says Warrillow.
Its seeds were smuggled out of Peru and planted in other parts of the world. The strain of quinine that Fever-Tree uses comes from famous plant hunter Charles Ledger. (He first tried to sell purloined cinchona seeds—which turned out to be duds—to Britain, according to Amy Stewart’s encyclopedic The Drunken Botanist. A second batch, sold to the Dutch and grown in Java, worked out well.)
When the British army was dispatched to India, its soldiers were given quinine syrup to combat malaria. In desperation to make the bitter medicine taste better, infantrymen mixed it with fruits, botanicals, sweeteners, water and, finally, gin, which was also regularly handed out to the army.
Tonic works so well with the liquor that “Everywhere the British army went, this was part of their rations, particularly in malaria areas,” says Warrillow. “Then the tradition stuck and even where there wasn’t malaria they took [gin & tonics] with them.”
Naturally, the popularity of gin & tonics grew outside the United Kingdom and India and quickly caught on in the United States with “American hosts who wanted to impress folk with having combed the Orient,” wrote noted bon vivant Charles H. Baker Jr. in his 1939 book, The Gentleman’s Companion.
It didn’t hurt that several Hemingway stories, according to Philip Greene’s fine read To Have and Have Another, include characters mixing up the tipple. (Papa’s tropical novel Islands in the Stream contains a particularly mouth-watering scene.)
Today the concoction is still beloved in the U.K., but it is also cherished in Spain, of all places, where it is often served in giant balloon-shape glasses and mixed with all kinds of fruits, herbs, and spices.
In the U.S., big soda brands still dominate the tonic market, but drinkers are increasingly interested in alternatives that aren’t sweetened with corn syrup, have fewer calories and are made with higher-quality ingredients.
In addition to Fever-Tree, a number of craft brands are furthering tonic’s popularity, including Q Tonic, whose quinine supply comes from the Peruvian Andes, and Tomr’s Tonic Artisanal Quinine Syrup, which can be carbonated when mixed with club soda.
I suggest you use Charles H. Baker’s simple but delicious G&T recipe: Pour 1 to 1½ ounces of gin into a highball glass. Add a couple of ice cubes, fill the glass with chilled tonic water, and garnish with a twist of lime peel.
Baker delivers on the drink, but cautions that “all those who embrace this drink to remember it is a medicine and not primarily a stimulant only. On more than one occasion we have temporarily showed aberration on this subject, with the result that our ears rang unmercifully and next day we felt like Rameses II, réchauffé.”
Wise words that still hold up today.