Make Your Own Tonic Water at Home

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Here at Winelandia, we are big fans of doing things “the hard way.” Sometimes doing things this way yields better results than doing them “the easy way,” and generally it’s never as “hard” as it initially sounds. Case in point: tonic. Buy the cheap stuff (Schweppes or Canada Dry) and what you end up with is high fructose corn syrup-infused, quinine-laced, artificially flavored Citrus Drank. It tastes about as good as it sounds. Go a step further and buy Fever Tree brand tonic and you are in much better shape… although it costs about $6 for four small 7 oz bottles. Our advice is to ditch the commercial options and make your own. No tonic tastes better than the kind you can make yourself.

There are a few fundamental principles of tonic. First: It always contains quinine, a chemical which occurs naturally in the South American cinchona tree’s bark. This chemical has been known to reduce fevers, act as an anti-inflammatory agent and anti-malarial, and has medicinal uses dating back to the 17th century. Second: Tonic usually has a citrus flavor which can be derived from the zest or juice of any citrus fruit, or by adding lemongrass. Really, you can use whatever you want but I think citrus as a foundation is a good plan when you are first getting started. Third: Tonic needs to have flavor components to balance out the bitterness of the quinine; botanicals have been added to tonic as flavoring agents to make the healthful tonic more approachable, but I think it’s more important to use sensory elements such as sourness and sweetness to balance out the bitterness. We do this by adding sugar and citric acid to the tonic.

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The most difficult part about making tonic is finding a supply of cinchona tree bark. If you live in a culturally-diverse major metropolitan area, you can find it pretty easily at Asian or Latin markets. It’s usually sold in baggies with the other spices. If you can’t find it at the store, you can find it online pretty easily. I can’t attest to any of the brands found online, but I can find this Eden brand cut cinchona bark at the Duc Loi market on Mission street in San Francisco. You can find it in two different forms; powdered or cut. I have only ever found the cut bark at the aforementioned market, but you can put it through a mill grinder to make powder if you want a more concentrated tonic (don’t hold me responsible if you break your mill grinder, that bark is tough). Cinchona bark is dirt cheap, I recommend stocking up if you find it in a store because you will undeniably want to make gallons of tonic after you experience your first sip.

Citric acid is another ingredient that can be a little tough to find, but you can always find it at your local home brew shop, as it’s a common chemical used in home brewing and winemaking. If you’re unable to find it at a store, you can find it easily online. I got mine on Amazon.

Once you have your cinchona tree bark and citric acid, the rest of the ingredients are really easy to find and you can channel your creative energy into new, unexpected and exciting flavors. I am going to post a basic recipe first, and then I’ll post a list of potential ingredients that you could mix and match to make a flavor profile to complement your favorite gin.

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Basic Tonic Recipe
(adapted from SeriousEats, Imbibe & my brain)

Tools:
Small saucepan
Sharp, sturdy chef’s knife
Citrus zester
Coffee filter, French press, cheesecloth or fine mesh sieve

Ingredients:
2 tsp ground cinchona bark or 4 tsp cut cinchona bark
1 lemon
1 lime
1 large lemongrass stalk
1.5 tsp citric acid
1.5 c sugar
2 c still water
Carbonated Water

Method:
1. Combine sugar, still water, citric acid and cinchona bark in a small saucepan and put on medium-high heat.
2. Cut lemongrass into 1/2″ pieces on the bias and add to saucepan.
3. Zest lemon and lime, then add zest to saucepan.
4. Juice lemon and lime into saucepan.
5. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 25 minutes (if using ground cinchona) or 45 minutes (if using cut cinchona).
6. Remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes.
7a. IF USING CUT CINCHONA: Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a sterilized glass jar.
7b. IF USING GROUND CINCHONA: Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve to remove the large solids; then run the mixture through a coffee filter, 4 layers of cheesecloth, or french press to remove the finer particulate matter. Ground cinchona is very fine and will take a very long time to strain if using a coffee filter. Be patient, the coffee filter method will produce the most visually appealing result. Once filtered, put into a sterilized glass jar.
8. Allow tonic syrup to cool.
9. Add 1 part tonic syrup to 4 parts carbonated water for consumption by itself, with a squeeze of lime; or as a cocktail (just add 1 oz. gin or vodka).
10. Store left-over tonic in the refrigerator for a week or freeze for later use.

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Now that you have your basic recipe down, it’s easy to start adding/replacing botanicals to create a flavor profile all of your own. My suggestion is to look for things you already have in your kitchen that will add a delicious and unexpected flavor combination to your next batch of tonic. Below are some ideas I’ve gleaned from my own kitchen, friends and research. In reality, you can add anything. Just be sure to use an ingredient that can hold up to extended periods of heat without damaging the flavor.

Kaffir Lime Leaf
Kumquat
Allspice
Lemon Verbana
Tangerine
Tarragon
Coriander Seed
Grapefruit
Thyme
Rosemary
Stonefruit
Star Anise
Bay Laurel
Pink Peppercorn

Do you have suggestions for other botanicals to use in home-made tonic, or combinations of them to create new and delicious flavors? Let us know in the comments!