I still have a surprisingly clear memory of the first time I went camping in Baja with a group of friends. As soon as we got our gear unpacked on the beach, I reached for a cold beer, but John, the most experienced of the crew, stopped me. No, apparently, the first thing to do was have a tequila and tonic. “Dear god”, I thought as I was handed a quart tumbler of this concoction, “what have I got myself into?” It turns out that that John knew his stuff. The tonic water had a complex flavor and the tequila had none of the burn I had come to expect. It was the ideal sipping drink for that beach. I’ve ordered it in bars north of the border, and though the shocked look on the bartender’s face is sometimes priceless, the drink has never been as good as that first one.
Long ago, before I had kids and no free time, I used to brew beer. When that hobby went by the wayside, I still had a giant chest fridge, a bunch of empty kegs, and a CO2 system for serving them. Rather than let it take up space doing nothing, I started filling the kegs with filtered water, hooking up the CO2, and drinking sparkling water. With sparkling water on tap, I started thinking of other things to do with it…. I made some pretty good root beer, but I always had in my head the idea of making tonic water. My thinking was that, perhaps, I could remake the magic of that Baja drink.
Eventually the complex keg system gave way to a Sodastream, and the tonic idea finally came to a head. In looking around, I found a couple of recipes from crazy cocktail geeks in the Pacific NW that got me started. (Sadly those sites are no longer on the internet, but I’ve pasted the links below in case someone wants to use some sort of wayback search to track them down). The trick was finding cinchona bark and citric acid, but you know, with the internets, it wasn’t much of a trick. I combined a couple of recipes, and started cooking.. After some tweaks (for instance, I decided I don’t like orange in my tonic water), I finally settled on recipe that blew me away.
Cooking this up is easy as can be. The challenge comes when you need to filter it. The cinchona bark I used is ground to a fine powder that drives me bat-shit crazy. I heard tell that you can use a french press, but I was reluctant to turn that into a dedicated tonic tool. Instead, I filter it through coffee filters and sometimes cloth when they run out. You lose a lot of it because the filter clogs almost immediately. I spend a lot of time with a spatula, clearing space in the filter and swearing. I’d love to use a vacuum filter rig, but I don’t have a good source for sterile ones, nor a good vacuum pump in the kitchen. Because of the filter issue, I cannot stress enough DO NOT ADD SUGAR BEFORE FILTERING. If you do, in addition to being frustrated and grumpy, you will also be a sticky mess and you may get eaten by a bear. You’ve been warned.
As an update, I recently talked to a friend who just tried making tonic and she got her cinchona bark in chunks about 1 cm across. This would make filtering a doodle, though I’m not sure if the flavor will extract as well. Since she had a giant bag, she gave me some, and I’ll try that way.
The syrup is a nice orange color, and you can store it in the fridge for a while. You can decide how sweet you like it, but gin is pretty bitter, so a bit of sweetness balances it out. I mix a drink 1.5 oz syrup, 1.5 oz gin, and 3 oz soda water. Add a lime. Enjoy.
I’ve actually never gone back to try this with tequila… it’s just not something I keep around these days. But the taste of this makes me think of sitting on a beach all the same.
- 4 cups water
- 1 stalk chopped lemongrass
- 1/4 cup cinchona bark (quinine)
- 1/4 cup citric acid
- 1 tsp alspice berries
- 1 tsp corriander seeds
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Zest and juice from 3 limes
- Zest and juice from 1 lemon
- 4 cups sugar
- Combine all ingredients except the sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil for about 20 minutes. Let cool before filtering. Remove the large chunks, then filter out the cinchona bark however you can (see text).
- Return filtrate to saucepan and add 4 cups of sugar (or to taste) and possibly another 1/2 cup of water. Bring to a boil until the sugar dissolves. Cool before serving.
- To serve, combine in a rocks glass 1 shot tonic syrup, 1 shot gin or what-have-you. Top with about 3 oz soda water. Serve with lime.
Historical anticedents to this recipe. I actually have the original recipes copied in my notes, but I feel a bit weird just pasting their text in my blog… send me an email, though, and I’m happy to share them.