Matt Ufford

I Made My Own Tonic Water and Now I’m a Full-on Tonic Geek


My tonic obsession started with a gift. My brother-in-law sent a self-contained “make your own tonic water” kit from the Oakland Spice Shop. The plastic bag contained a recipe card and several smaller bags filled with dried lemongrass, allspice berries, cubeb pepper, citric acid and a reddish-brown powder: ground cinchona bark.

Cinchona (pronounced chin-chona) is both the key ingredient in homemade tonic and the reason I fell into the internet wormhole of tonic’s history; it’s hard to make tonic without pulling at a thread that runs through three centuries of colonialism. In the 16th or 17th century, Spanish colonists learned that the bark of the Peruvian quina tree could treat malaria. As such, cinchona bark (and the quinine within it) became an essential tool of European colonialism. The native trees were harvested nearly to the point of extinction before the British and Dutch smuggled seeds out of the country. They cultivated the plant in the East Indies and, later, during the Japanese occupation of Java during World War I, in Africa, the source of most cinchona today.

Along the way, British soldiers made their bitter medicine more palatable by adding sugar, lime, gin and (when it was available) carbonated water. Yes, the Gin and Tonic was the drink of exploitative oppressors, but an understanding of history shouldn’t preclude our enjoyment of a perfect drink. (I support a critical view of history, but if you’re considering a boycott of tonic on moral grounds, I have some extremely bad news about rum.)

After I followed the steps of the recipe (dump everything in water, simmer on the stove, then strain the gunk out), I had a ruddy-colored syrup that, when mixed with gin and soda, produced a G&T with a golden-brown hue. It was jarring, after drinking clear Gin and Tonics for so long, to have one with color. But industrial tonic is typically made with synthetic quinine and high-fructose corn syrup; the added color in my drink was HISTORICAL AUTHENTICITY. I was living free from the tyrannical grasp of Schweppes and Canada Dry. I put my feet up and read some Kipling.

There was just one catch: My tonic was fine—good, even. Compared to a G&T made with store-bought tonic, my homemade concoction had subtle aromatic flavors and none of the cloying sweetness of high-fructose corn syrup (I’d never thought of bottled tonic as sweet until I made my own). But as I drank more of it over the following days, I found my product just a touch too bitter. I would have liked more specific citrus notes. Good tonic wasn’t enough. I had to make the perfect tonic.

Matt Ufford

So I went back to the internet, and found a rich culture of tonic artisans hidden among the world of culinary bloggers. You’ve seen their websites: long-winded introductions to every recipe, gratuitous photographs of impeccably placed ingredients, kitchens awash in natural light and white kitchenware. They each referenced a 2008 tonic recipe by Jeffrey Morgenthaler (which Morgenthaler later disavowed), then launched into their own ingredients and techniques. Some of the highlights:

  • Because cinchona powder is so hard to strain, make a quinine tincture with Everclear before cooking it with the other ingredients. (I didn’t do this, but I like the idea.)
  • Do not cook citrus zest! This recipe favors cold-pressing.
  • Cooking the ingredients with sugar will gum up the filtration process. Whisk in simple syrup after filtering.
  • The recipe doesn’t need citric acid if you serve the drink with a big wedge of lime. (Counterpoint: If you add the right amount of citric acid and lime zest to your tonic, you don’t need a lime.)
  • Add a shot of high-proof vodka as a final step to improve your tonic’s shelf life.
  • Strain thoroughly! This article is a little fast and loose with its doomsday scenarios, but it’s a useful reminder that excessive quinine consumption can lead to cinchonism, which has unpleasant (but impermanent) symptoms. The FDA has limits on how much quinine can be in products for a reason.
As I jotted down notes, the recipes began to blend together, and I realized that tonic obsessives weren’t much different than chili obsessives: Everyone has their own recipe, and each recipe has a “secret” ingredient or technique that sets it apart from all of the other, lesser recipes. But the obsession over details clouds a simpler truth: There’s no secret; it’s just meat slow-cooked in spices. That’s the gist of tonic syrup. You have one essential ingredient—cinchona, for its quinine—and everything else that goes into the recipe is there to offset or balance its extreme bitterness.

Freed from the burden of choosing a specific recipe, I went out in search of my own ingredients:

  • I got allspice berries, coriander, cardamom pods and cloves from my local food co-op. Being a member of a co-op is a voluntary waltz through an outer circle of hell, but the spices are mad cheap. If you don’t belong to the hippie grocery labor camp near you, just go to a spice shop.
  • I found stalks of fresh lemongrass at the co-op as well, but it’s also in more grocery stores than you might expect. You’ve likely never seen it because you’ve never needed lemongrass before.
  • Citric acid is another ingredient most people rarely look for. It can be found in the canning section of relevant stores, but it’s also sold by Walmart and Amazon.
  • After an extended hunt for cinchona bark powder, I eventually found some at Kalustyan’s, a world food store in Manhattan. It was $5.99 for a 1.5-ounce bag and, inexplicably, $12.99 for a 3-ounce bag. In a textbook dad move, I grabbed two 1.5-ounce bags—about four times what any recipe calls for—because that’s a free dollar! (Note: I made this purchase after buying packages of both cinchona and citric acid online, which is the far easier thing to do. I have a lot of cinchona now.)
All of the ingredients went into a pot with four cups of water, which I simmered for 30 minutes. When the mixture cooled, I put it in a jar and added the zest of a lemon, an orange and a grapefruit. (Per the internet, I didn’t want to cook the citrus.)

Two days later, I filtered the mixture three times: once through a sieve, once through cheesecloth and, finally, through a coffee filter (this took forever, but I was spooked by the specter of cinchonism). I whisked in simple syrup at a one-to-one ratio, and now I have enough tonic syrup for a vacation on the Mosquito Coast. I will be giving away small bottles of artisanal tonic as gifts for the rest of my life. This batch will never last that long, of course, but I already have some tweaks I want to make for next time.

Matt Ufford

Matt Ufford’s DIY Tonic Syrup

Here's my from-the-hip recipe. I stand by it, but I'm already eager to make tweaks to the next batch: a more aggressive dose of aromatic spices, lime zest, maybe some lavender. Like I said, it's hard to mess up. Give it a try, you'll see. 

.25 cup cinchona bark powder
.25 cup citric acid
3 stalks of fresh lemongrass, cut into quarter-inch rounds
8-10 green cardamom pods
8-10 whole cloves
12-15 allspice berries
15-20 whole coriander seeds
.25 tsp salt
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
Zest of 1 grapefruit
Approx. 3 cups simple syrup (1:1 sugar to water, heated and stirred until sugar dissolves)

In 4 cups of water, bring the cinchona, citric acid, lemongrass, cardamom, cloves, allspice, coriander and salt to a boil, and reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Allow mixture to cool and pour into a jar. Once at room temperature, add all of the zest and refrigerate for 2-3 days, gently shaking mixture 1-2 times per day.

After 2-3 days, strain through a sieve to remove the lemongrass, spices and zest. Strain a second time through cheesecloth to remove much of the cinchona particulate. More straining is recommended: A coffee filter is time-consuming but effective, or you can put the mixture back in the fridge, let it settle some more, and strain through cheesecloth again.

Depending how much water has boiled off or been lost in the straining process, you will have 2-3 cups of highly bitter quinine syrup. Whisk in simple syrup at a 1:1 ratio. Bottle and store in the refrigerator.

For a Gin and Tonic, pour approximately 2 tablespoons (or 1 ounce) of syrup to 1.5 ounces of gin. Add soda water to taste.

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