Matter of Taste: How the Gin & Tonic swept European colonialists across the world

The refreshing drink played a disturbing role in the imperial domination of Asia and India

Matter of Taste, Gin, Tonic,

[Flickr/Alex Turton]

The Gin and Tonic is the first mixed drink that everyone gets to know, a refreshing splash that soothes the palette on a hot summer’s day. It looks so innocent, an ever-so-slightly blue tinged lemonade, it is the simplest cocktail of them all. A shot of gin cut through with fizzing tonic, cooled by ice and offset by a slice of something citric. But for all its allusions to sophistication, the G & T has a place in the history of medicine and at the centre of the expanding European empires.

While gin is often thought of as a distinctly British drink, the Dutch will raise an objection. But unlike the liquid itself, the origins of gin are a little more opaque. Its creation is often credited to Sylvius de Bouve, a 16th-century Dutch doctor, who named his potent medicinal blend Jenever. That was a nod to the essential oils of the juniper berries that give gin its floral punch, and which the good doctor was certain would improve blood circulation, among other cures.

Gin most likely made its way across the Channel to Britain after English soldiers happened upon it either during the Dutch War of Independence in the 1580s or the Thirty Years’ War that came to a conclusion in 1648. While the British soldiers applied a stiff-upper-lipped J sound to genever to become gin, they also gifted the world a rich idiom, nicknaming the liquor ‘Dutch courage’.

When William of Orange became the ruling monarch of England in 1688, gin flowed far and wide, taking the cultural place of French brandy, once the drink-of-choice of the hard-drinking nobility. And so it continued, but becoming increasingly problematic. With gin-brewers producing gallons and gallons all over the country, a noted rise in public drunkenness led to the so-called ‘Gin Craze’, the name given to the rising tide of moral panic that the lower glasses were also fond of the drink. Parliament responded with a series of strict laws to stem the flow, from higher taxes to making it more expensive to operate a gin joint. While gin’s popularity did wane, but it has been popular in British pubs ever since.

And what of tonic, the half of the marriage that does the heavy lifting? The sweet, carbonated mixer also owes its routes to global history, thanks in no small part to quinine, a naturally occurring anti-malarial organic compound that grows in the bark of the cinchona tree.

The bark was harvested by the Quechua/Inca peoples of Bolivia and Peru who used it to treat several maladies. European settlers spotted its value, bringing it back to Spain with tails of how it could cure malaria. By the 18th century, chemists had managed to extract the quinine alkaloid from the tree bark, turning it into an essential part of tonic water. The tree garnered the nickname ‘Fever Tree’, from which an entire brand of mixers owes its name today.

Controlling quinine meant controlling colonialism. The compound was so potent that by the middle of the 19th century, most of the South American countries producing it had shaken off Spanish rule and become republics. So concerned were European imperial nations with the growing economic power of cinchona producers that they stole seeds from them in order to create their own hybrids of the trees, resettling the saplings in Asian colonies, most notably Ceylon and Java.

Cheaply available rations of quinine were distributed to British forces and officers all over India, who were the first ones to think of adding it to gin for a refreshing respite from the harsh sun. It’s fair to say that without tonic water, the history of colonialism as we know it would have been entirely different. As Surgeon Major G. Bidie of the British Army of Madras said in 1897 of the cinchona bark: “To England, with her numerous and extensive Colonial possessions, it is simply priceless; and it is not too much to say, that if portions of her tropical empire are upheld by the bayonet, the arm that wields the weapon would be nerveless but for cinchona bark and its active principles.”

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