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.