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The Indian Origins of Gin and Tonic

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You might have heard that G+T has something to do with India, but do you know the whole story?

Back in the late 1700s a certain Dr. George Cleghorn picked up on the news from the Spanish ViceRoyalty of Peru of the use of tree bark to treat malaria. This was the cinchona tree, and its essence the very bitter quinine. Malaria was (and still is) endemic in many places, not least India. No-one was more susceptible to falling ill in India than the Europeans living there: Portuguese, French and English.

In the first half of the 1800s most of India was controlled by and through trade with the British East India Company – and its ultimate persuasive tool, its private armies. To keep soldiers in relative good health they were all given regular doses of powdered quinine to take. To make the quinine more palatable the soldiers would mix it into water sweetened with sugar cane sugar – the original tonic, but without the bubbles.

In some cantonment some soldiers decided to add their daily gin ration to the mix, if only to make something more ‘exciting’. It worked, and the recipe spread. First generation gin and tonic was born. But that’s not the whole story.

Around about the same time, back in Europe some companies began carbonating mineral water – i.e. soda water. A relatively inexpensive but elite product, soda water became popular in England after Dr. Schweppe of Geneva brought his process over from Geneva. He received the Royal Warrant for providing Malvern Soda Water to King William IV, then became the official sponsor of Prince Albert’s famous Great Exhibition of 1851.

Inevitably, visiting British East India Company officers would have drunk the soda water and liked it. Soon soda water was being exported to India. Where did officers and administrators go to relax? In Shimla. Where was plain water substituted by soda water? In Shimla. Second generation gin and tonic was born.

Just at the moment the British Government took direct control over India a Mr. Bond, Erasmus Bond, began selling an industrially prepared tonic water. By 1870, with an eye to a fast growing market opportunity, Schweppe’s launched its “Indian Quinine Tonic”. The gin and tonic we know today was born. In Shimla.

By World War I what once was a bitter medicinal tipple in tropical colonies was a mainstay of British clubs and bars. Right after that it hit New York. The planetary cocktail had arrived.

You know where gin comes from?

Bet you most of you will say “Holland”, thanks to the similarity in name (‘gin’ comes from ‘jenever’), and of course the legend of “Dutch Courage”. Yes, that’s true, but it’s not the whole story.

Gin actually comes from Italy. At least, it’s where we get the first documentary proof of it, where the monks of a monastery near Salerno, south of Naples, were making it a thousand years ago. Why there? Because of the juniper trees. Why juniper? Because for at least a thousand years before that Romans and Greeks used juniper as medicine – both its fruit and its leaves. Juniper branches are still burned as part of sacred rituals in Nepal.

The original gin was a medicine, as were all distilled alcohol products at the time. How did they know how to make distilled alcohol? From the Arabs with whom merchants in southern Italy traded (alcohol and the alambic are both Arabic words). What was alcohol used for in Arab lands? For medicine – and for cosmetics (and that’s where perfumes and mascara come from).

The monastic network spread many techniques around Europe, from brandy in France to jenever in Holland, from akvavit in Norway to cachaça in Brasil.

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