Gin is undoubtedly the star of the show when it comes to that beloved drink, the gin and tonic. It’s not uncommon to see the UK’s favourite spirit infused, aged, flavoured, quadruple-distilled, glammed up and dressed down before it’s topped up with a comparatively sad spray of tonic from a nozzle. However, the origins of the G&T point to another central character (hint: it’s not the ampersand).
Yes, it turns out gin was initially an accessory to tonic, not the other way round. The story goes that the British East India Company’s army drank quinine in the form of tonic water to treat malaria when they were stationed in tropical regions. The tonic’s unpleasant bitterness led the officers to add their gin rations to the drink, creating a more tolerable flavour – and tonic rapidly took a backseat to its boozy counterpart.
But tonic is finally growing wise to the outrageous antics of its juniper spouse. Using gin’s impressive growth as a springboard, the tonic water market is pushing for innovation.
At first it was simply a matter of making the move from nozzle to bottle, and brands like Fever-Tree led the charge. Now tonic is branching out in terms of flavour, as well.
Fever-Tree’s recent release of a cucumber tonic to the off-trade points to a growing thirst for variety – but other brands catering to the on-trade are taking an ever more imaginative approach. Indeed, cucumber seems tame when compared to Yarrow, Rosehip & Elderflower or Lime, Galangal & Orange, two of the flavours in the range of relative newcomer Jeffrey’s Tonic.
Based in Chester, Jeffrey’s is the brainchild of Mike and Maureen Robinson, who recognised the drink’s potential for creativity.
‘It would be impossible not to notice that tonic has been phenomenal in its growth,’ co-founder and managing director Mike Robinson tells Imbibe. ‘That was one of the reasons we wanted to get into it – there was a gap in terms of innovation in the tonic market.’
Up in Newcastle, Jordan Palmer and Matt Mahatme saw this same gap. They launched Lixir Tonic in response, gauging interest in the project with a crowdfunding campaign. It proved quite interesting indeed, smashing its £14k target to raise over £16k in 35 days.
‘People were interested in combinations of flavours that haven’t been done before,’ comments Palmer, referring to its variants like Blood Orange & Cinnamon and Rhubarb & Ginger.
A matter of taste
Clearly new and tempting flavours are a sign that this category is changing, but Robinson is quick to point out that slapping ‘elderflower’ or ‘cucumber’ on a tonic does not innovation make.
‘There’s a profusion of new premium tonic water brands looking to tap into the gin and tonic boom, but which are operating in the standard norms of the tonic water category,’ he explains. ‘Then there are tonic water brands offering different flavour combinations, but many of them currently are simply just tonic waters with flavour additives that are normally only consumed as a mixer.’
Perhaps the more significant innovation in tonic, then, is the application of the same premium approach that many gin producers have been touting, relying on high-quality ingredients to set their liquids apart in an increasingly crowded market. Jeffrey’s uses real cinchona instead of quinine extract as the base for its tonics for ‘added flavour and more rounded bitterness’; Lixir creates its tonics around an ‘all-natural’ premise, with no artificial flavourings, sweeteners or added preservatives.
This focus on quality is particularly important when we remember what the British East India Company knew all too well – that frankly, the drink has a reputation for being rather unpleasant.
‘Tonic out of the nozzle doesn’t always taste great,’ admits Palmer.
Robinson agrees. ‘The tonic water market has been dominated for so long by a few major brands which have reinforced the perception of tonic waters as very bitter, clear drinks that don’t taste good enough to drink on their own,’ he explains.
From bitter to better
But now that tonic’s bite is being tempered with new flavours and ingredients, it could step out of gin’s shadow to embark on a new journey.
‘Tonic is now perfectly positioned to be appreciated on its own,’ says Robinson.
And even if a solo tonic serve doesn’t appeal to your customers immediately, tonic brands are also putting forth their softs as complex cocktail ingredients with tipples beyond gin: Lixir pairs its Blood Orange & Cinnamon tonic with bourbon, while Jeffrey’s matches prosecco with its Yarrow, Rosehip & Elderflower.
Ultimately, the rise of tonic as both a standalone beverage and as a mixer seems to lie in the fine balance of making a drink that is delicious on its own, but also has enough of that signature bitterness to balance other flavours, as well.
Robinson puts it this way: ‘It’s about time that there was a drink out there that exists to enhance and lift flavours of spirits, not just to dilute them.’
Tonics to try
Find these tonic makers at Imbibe Live and discover how the category is evolving:
Originally launched in syrup form, Jeffrey’s Tonic is rolling out 200ml fizzy tonic bottles at Imbibe Live (Stand F32) and is also releasing a keg format. Available in four flavours, it promises an ‘adult, interesting flavour, with not too much bitterness’.
Fentimans Oriental Yuzu and Pink Rhubarb Tonics
These new releases from major player Fentimans are framed as ‘perfect for pairing with contemporary and new wave gins’, and come in 125ml, 200ml and 500ml formats. Check them out at Imbibe Live on Stand B60.
Lixir’s bottled tonics were developed to complement both light and dark spirits and stand alone as adult soft drinks. All five flavours will be on display at Imbibe Live on Stand F45.
While you’re here…