Recipe: Simple Homemade Tonic Water – and 5 commercial brands compared

40 grams of cut cinchona bark

After tasting 5 types of commercial tonic and following several DIY recipes, I’m finally ready to share my homemade tonic syrup recipe.

Simple Tonic Syrup

Yield: about 2 cups syrup, or enough for 16 1-oz pours.

Ingredients

Directions

Heat 1.5 cups of water to a boil on the stove. Once the water is hot, add the cinchona bark, kill the heat, and let steep for 20 minutes, covered. Remove from heat and strain out the cinchona bark first using a fine mesh strainer and then either with several layers of cheesecloth or using a  jury-rigged aeropress. Move the liquid into a tupperware container and combine with sugar and citric acid at room temperature. Shake, if you’re in a hurry. Once the sugar has dissolved fully, store the tonic syrup in the refrigerator.

Notes

- I don’t like adding fresh citrus juice of any kind to syrups because they have a tendency to spoil, lose their freshness, and make the rest of the product go cloudy.

- If anyone knows of more suppliers of cut cinchona, please comment! It looks like my usual source is out of stock.

- If you’re wondering about other ingredients, like lemongrass and allspice, see below.

the finished product, nice and clear

What’s wrong with just buying tonic water?

1. Cost

If you’re reading this site, I am going to assume you’re not one to be satisfied with normal store-bought tonic water. That means you prefer finer brands, like Q Tonic or Fever Tree. Both companies make some fine products, but they don’t come cheap. Q Tonic costs $0.25/oz if you buy it in bulk. Fever tree runs closer to $0.20/oz.

I’ve done the math, and my tonic syrup runs also runs about $0.25/oz. But since a gin and tonic needs 4 oz of tonic water, and a homemade drink only required 1 oz of tonic syrup, the commercial tonics actually cost about four times as much as home-made .

2. Tailoring the tonic to taste

Cocktail geeks will read the recipe for simple tonic syrup above and balk. What, no lemongrass? No allspice? Not even some citrus peels or juice?

No.

Yes, you should consider adding some of your favorite modifiers to the syrup depending on the cocktail and the base spirit. But not before you try a gin and tonic plain. Personally, I was blown away by how the simple bitterness of cinchona brought out complexities and harmonies in gin. Don’t muddy the flavors just because you think you’re cool.

Once you’ve worn the plain tonic for a few drinks and it feels comfortable against your skin, start thinking about the gins (or vodka, bourbons, etc.) you’d like to play with and whether that spirit needs a modifier. With a smooth gin like plymouth, I like a squeeze of lemon and some lavender or elderflower infused into the syrup. With tanqueray, it’s all about allspice and orange peel.

My thoughts on various brands of tonic

Like I mentioned above, I tried a number of different brands of tonic and recipes while developing this recipe. Here are some notes, for those of you who are interested.

  • Standard, retail stuff (Schweppes, canada dry, etc.): These all taste really medicinal and one-note to me. Not that medicinal is always a bad thing when it comes to cocktails, but in this case it is. High Fructose Corn Syrup usually contributes to cheap tonic’s bad rap, but I’m not sure it’s truly to blame. Regardless, the stuff is pretty gross.
  • Q Tonic: I’m a huge fan of all of Q Tonic’s products (ok, except the club soda – really?) and their tonic water is no exception. The lemongrass is clearly evident without being overpowering. The use of agave helps to reduce the cloying mouthfeel (it has to do with fructose vs. sucrose blah blah blah…) and the bitterness is just perfect.
  • Fever Tree: A little bit more sharp and less integrated that the Q Tonic stuff. Overall, not a bad product, but I somewhat prefer the bitter lemon or mediterranean tonic versions, which have more character.
  • Tomr’s Tonic = I really, really, really wanted to like this. And Tomr’s is definitely better than the store-bought stuff… but I just can’t get over the acidity. I’m not sure what was added to the mix besides citric acid, but this tonic syrup has an off-putting chemical artificial-lemon-juice taste I just can’t shake. Mixed in a gin and tonic, the chemical flavor mostly subsides, but so does the bitterness of the cinchona. Once again, not bad, but for a handcrafted (and not cheap!) product, I expected more.
  • Jeffrey Morganthaler’s Recipe: This is the quintessential recipe that set the whole homemade tonic concept in motion. Jeffrey’s recipe is delicious, if a little sour for my taste. My main problems with it were that 1: it wasn’t bitter enough, 2: powdered cinchona is a huge pain in the (@* to filter, and 3: mixing fresh citrus juices into the “syrup” turn it cloudy and drastically reduce shelf-life. Maybe his recipe makes sense if you expect to go through a batch of tonic in a busy night, but for the home enthusiast, it really isn’t practical.

What about the booze?

And of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without a recipe for the classic G&T.

homemade gin and tonic

Simple Gin and Tonic

3 parts soda water
2 parts gin
1 part Simple Tonic Syrup

Build over ice. Garnish with a lime wedge, if desired.

Notes

- Notice how the gin and tonic pictured above is just slightly colored and not at all cloudy. Other recipes I’ve seen tend to be dark, even sludgy. I think that’s because the other tonics were not filtered as well or due to the addition of other ingredients.

Much more to follow on gin and tonic’s. In the meantime,

What’s your favorite tonic?

52 Comments

  1. Jimmy July 12, 2012 at 6:45 am #

    Hey Kevin, how do you take your awesome pictures? Do you have a light box or something?

    • Kevin July 13, 2012 at 2:58 am #

      Jimmy,

      I use a DIY product photography Ego Light and a DIY Spiderlite mounted onto a tripod. I’ve got a car windshield reflector taped into a black umbrella mounted behind the Spiderlite and I’m using a mesh laundry bag as a diffuser.

      I’m ghetto.

  2. Eric Lecours September 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    ciao kevin, great article. i tried this method out making grenadine as well. seemed to work ok. i had my bartender shake the bottle off and on for an hour or so. i used to make it in the restaurant kitchen which is a pain. i can’t send my bartenders into the kitchen so i have to do it myself.

    on a side note, i would like to predict the preservative effect sugar and alcohol on a solution. any advice? for example if i premix punch or make a lemon syrup, etc.

    cheers,
    eric

    • Kevin September 7, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

      Hi Eric,

      What do you mean you used this method to make grenadine? What did you use to infuse the syrup? I usually reduce pomegranate juice to make grenadine.

      Your question about using sugar and alcohol to preserve syrups is a terrific one. I’m actually working on doing a post on how the science behind preservation works. To summarize: sugar, acid, and alcohol all help to lower “water activity” – a number that corresponds with the percentage of H2O active in a syrup.

      Once that number gets low enough, bad stuff either grows really really slowly or just stops growing altogether. Charting out how each of the factors affect water activity hasn’t been done and is a bit of a pain in the butt, from my experience. In the meantime, I would check out Camper English’s experiments as a rule-of-thumb.

      In order to get something truly shelf stable, you’re looking at pretty high concentrations of alcohol and sugar, something around 1:1 sugar:water and 20% ABV. If you’re producing something in that range, give me a holler and I’ll look up the specific values for you.

      • Eric Lecours September 7, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

        ciao kevin, i guess i blew it. my comment above belongs on your simple syrup blog post. here’s what i did. i put the following in a 1 ltr bottle:

        2 cups sugar
        2 cups pomegranate juice
        2 oz pomegranate molasses
        1.5 tsp orange blossom water

        shake off and on for 30 minutes. done.

        as far as preservation goes, i’m thinking about the following:

        2 cups sugar
        2 cups fresh squeezed lemon juice

        without heat combine in bottle until sugar is in solution. how much longer will the lemon juice with sugar last compared to without sugar?

        second idea is…make a punch:

        2 cups 46% abv spirits
        2 cups pineapple juice
        1 cup lime juice
        1 cup simple syrup (1:1)

        here we have 15.33% final abv and 1/2 cup of sugar. i’m wondering how long this will keep.

        cheers, eric

  3. PT January 7, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    Hi Kevin;
    I have a problem, I only have ‘powdered’ cinchona….about 10 lbs of it. So I don’t have the option to use cinchona chips until all of it is gone, so how can I use the powder with your recipe?

    Thanks,
    PT

    • Kevin January 8, 2013 at 9:00 am #

      @PT,

      That’s easy! Simply reference Jefferey Morgenthaler’s original recipe

      http://www.jeffreymorgenthaler.com/2008/how-to-make-your-own-tonic-water/

      He uses powdered cinchona.
      Kevin

    • Ernest March 13, 2013 at 7:58 am #

      I just bouhgt cinchona chips from http://store.healingifts.com/index.html
      Unfortunately the shipping cost were more than the stuff itself. They ship from China and it was the only place I found who sells in small quantities.

      • Kevin March 13, 2013 at 8:56 am #

        @Ernest,

        Yeah, it can be kind of a pain. Thanks for posting your experience and the link – hopefully it helps others. And I hope the cinchona ends up being worth it!

      • MONCHI September 18, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

        I just purchased some cinchona bark at a shop on Avenida Mexico
        in Puerto Vallarta….

        • jan July 17, 2014 at 10:12 am #

          Hi Monchi,

          I live in DF and would love to begin to make my own Tonic but don’t know what to ask for when searching out the cinchona bark. What was it called in Spanish? Cinchona? What kind of store was it found in?

          I can now find Candada Dry or Schwepps easily but, as others have mentioned, they aren’t that good and they are FULL of sugar. So, I’m ready to try to make some of my own.

          Hope you can help.

          Thanks,

          Jan

          • Monchi July 17, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

            Yes, ask for cinchona. The store is a seed store…..has many spices and herbs
            loose in containers…..also granolas, seeds like amaranth….quinoa….all less expensive
            than in the supermarkets….
            I’m not terribly happy with the final product….not quite the tonic taste I like…..
            now we have a store here in PV, Casa Gourmet, that imports Canada Dry diet
            tonic water….62 pesos but worth it!

          • Monchib July 17, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

            Jan….
            yes, cinchona bark….got it at a ‘seed’ store that has open bins of spices, herbs,
            cereals, seeds etc…..have seem the stores throughout Mexico….and a lot less
            expensive than in the supermarkets….
            the tonic water recipe is good but not like real commercial tonic water….
            a store here is now importing Canada Dry diet tonic water….68 pesos but worth it….
            you should be able to find it in DF…..should be a store there with gringo imported
            stuff..
            cheers
            Ray
            beatynyc@msn.com
            Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico

      • Elin Whitney-Smith January 2, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

        If you live in the DC metro area the Grand Mart had cinchona bark in chunks. I just bought some .25 oz envelopes of El Chilar Quina (cinchona bark) for $0.99 each.

    • Ben September 9, 2013 at 1:15 am #

      I just made this tonight using powdered bark. Great! I filtered through a fine tea strainer twice, then through some diy teabags. Great flavor, but the resulting G&T need some lime for sure. Which is of course totally fine. Thanks! I’ll try a few batches this way, maybe with some cardamom or star anise.

      • Steve July 17, 2014 at 6:09 pm #

        I actually make the straight tonic recipe and make my own lime cordial at the same time. 1/2 oz of tonic and 1/2 of lime cordial is the best tonic I have ever had.

  4. Brad February 9, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Hi Kevin

    The recipe is awesome, and has changed my gin & tonic world forever!

    Thank you.

    1 question, where did you get those rugged looking coasters?

    Look forward to you response!

    Brad

  5. sergio March 25, 2013 at 11:13 pm #

    So, has anyone checked into any FDA regs? I ask because I’ve made my own tonic and love it. But before I serve it others…I so want to make sure there’s no violations.

    I can’t even find a site that will tell me if there’s more or less quinnine in the homemade version than in store bought.

    Any answers or links would be great…

    Thanks

    • Kevin March 26, 2013 at 7:56 am #

      Sergio,

      Just throwing this out there, but bitterness should be directly proportional to the quinine content of tonic, so as long as your tonic isn’t *extremely* bitter, I wouldn’t worry. With that being said, no, I haven’t been able to find any regulations or guidelines out there.

      Best,
      Kevin

  6. Johannes March 26, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for this recipe. I appreciate the simplicity, and do not miss the big number of aromas from my previous Morgenthaler-versions. With that being said, I do think that flavours added with care can be only good.

    As a matter of fact, I have worked out a conceptual tonic idea that I will try out this week. If it it doues not turn out badly, I will report again.

    Best regards from Bremen, Germany

  7. Johannes March 26, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

    By the way, I cannot seem to find your directions for making grenadine. I just bought your book online, but can only find a microwave version. How do you do ohterwise – reduce in a flat pan?

    And the pomergranate juice you are referring to (Pom, I think), is that pure juice without added sugar? In Germany, I can find something called Muttersaft – url – do you think it is the same stuff?

    • Kevin April 1, 2013 at 9:37 am #

      @Johannes,

      Yes, you can always reduce the pomegranate juice in a flat pan. I actually somewhat prefer the caramelized flavor that comes from the high heat of the microwave version. You can reduce over lower heat on the stovetop to get a cleaner (more boring, IMHO) flavor.

      I have no experience with the juice you linked to, but POM brand pomegranate juice has no added sugar, as far as I know.

  8. Dr. Rob April 27, 2013 at 3:58 am #

    To Sergio and Kevin;

    I admire your recipe and passion regarding Tonic syrup for Gin Tonics.

    All things in moderation. Sage advise is to go easy with Cinchona bark or powder. The are adverse reactions with excess Quinine ( Cardiac arrhythmia, for one ).

    An FDA website you may find helpful regarding Quinine safety and regulations:

    http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalProducts/ucm150746.htm

    On another note, the parent company of Trader Joes (Aldi) has recently been awarded a significant taste test rating along with other well know brands of Gin. As yet, the Oliver Cromwell brand of Gin ( which may be produced in Holland ) is not sold here in the US, but one can only write Trader Joes and hope. It is nonetheless, a good read, which you may enjoy.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2315572/Can-tell-Aldis-10-gin-posh-stuff-times-price-Drinks-expert-JILLY-GOOLDEN-breaks-ice-slice-out.html

    Cheers,

    Rob

  9. Drew April 29, 2013 at 12:38 am #

    Hi, Kevin,

    Thanks for the post and thoughts on making tonic water syrup. I’m looking forward to trying it myself. Just wanted to let you and others know that I found cut cinchona bark (as well as powdered, if you want it) at Penn Herb Co. Ltd. in Philadelphia (http://www.pennherb.com).

    Drew

  10. Charles May 21, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    Just wanted to say thank you for sharing your recipe for tonic syrup. Of the handful of recipes I’ve tried, yours is easily my favorite. That it is also the easiest is probably no coincidence, since there is nothing superfluous in it. The result is a G&T that tastes clean, bright and balanced.

    Kudos also for suggesting the use of an Aeropress to clarify the liquid; worked like a charm!

    • Kevin May 21, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

      @Charles,

      Great to hear – glad the recipe worked out for you :-)

      Kevin

  11. Don May 25, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    We are enjoying our first drink with your great recipe. I have one question, when you say “kill the heat,” do you mean turn the heat down to simmer or take it off the heat altogether. We simmered it on a very low heat and got a bit darker product then your photographs.

  12. Kevin May 26, 2013 at 1:41 am #

    @Don,

    Glad you’re enjoying the recipe. By “kill the heat” I meant to turn the heat off altogether.

    Hope that helps,
    Kevin

  13. Laurent July 20, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    Hi,

    I’ve try you recipe, really cool!

    Now I want to try Jeffrey’s, but I’m wandering about mixing Jeffrey’s recipe with your tricks. Like using bark instead of powder, adding the sugar when cold and put only zest, no juice.

    Did you ever try something like that?

    Thanks!

    • Kevin July 21, 2013 at 12:56 am #

      Laurent,

      Yes I’ve made Jeffrey’s recipe with my methods. Works just fine. Use the powder amounts that he calls for, and add the sugar last once the liquid cools. I still prefer to use citric acid instead of lemon/lime juice because most of the citrus flavor comes from the zest. Lemongrass and bitter orange peel can add a nice citrus note without adding juice.

      Kevin

  14. Mike Hoefner July 23, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    Fantastic recipe! And much, much better than my earlier, abortive attempt using Morgenthaler’s recipe (the salt was what killed it for me). I was able to get cinchona bark on Amazon from a company called Smallflower: 8 ounces for $15. It says “cinchona bark tea”, but it’s the real deal: chopped up bark.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003YJCNNQ

    Thanks again! I’m off to buy your book.

  15. Jerry July 30, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    I got the bark from Amazon and the chunks are really small — not even close to the large chunks you have pictured. Will I need to change the amount of bark I put into the water?

  16. Kevin August 19, 2013 at 11:45 pm #

    Here’s another place to grab powdered cinchona bark – http://www.herbaladvantage.com/.

    At the moment, they only have the powdered, but they’re working on cut cinchona as well.

  17. Alicia October 29, 2013 at 12:58 am #

    I haven’t done this, but here’s a suggestion for assessing the quinine content of your recipe. Quinine is fluorescent. So if you hold your tonic (at working dilution) up to a black light, you could probably compare its fluorescence intensity to a commercial brand’s. Bitterness could be the result of any number of compounds extracted from the bark, but the fluorescent property is (probably) due to quinine alone.

  18. Erika February 19, 2014 at 7:43 pm #

    I’ve been making this recipe for awhile now and I love it – thank you so much for sharing!
    I just wanted to mention that I usually get my cinchona bark from Tenzing Momo in Seattle (http://www.tenzingmomo.com/) – back when I first started making my own tonic, it was the only place I could find it online.

  19. John February 21, 2014 at 9:16 pm #

    Thanks for the great recipe.

    Chopped and powdered bark can be ordered (or purchased in store if you are near) from Lhasa Karnak Herb Company, in Berkeley, CA (USA).

    They also carry all of the herbs mentioned in some of the other recipes, as well as citric acid. Really nice people there too.

    2482 Telegraph Avenue
    Berkeley , CA 94704
    (510) 548-0380

  20. Dawn February 26, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    I’ve made J. Morgenthaler’s recipe twice, thinking that I just missed something the first time. No, both efforts resulted in essentially a sour-spicy syrup. Fine in its own way, but not a tonic. To me, a proper tonic water is bitter. Today I tried this recipe. Much better, and much simpler! It has a nice bitter note, and the recipe is simple enough that it’s not a chore to make additional batches to experiment. BTW, I had no trouble ordering cinchona bark OR powder through Amazon.

  21. Marie May 5, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    In case anyone is looking now, Penn Herbs has cut cinchona bark on sale – the 2lb size is $56 (http://www.pennherb.com/cinchona-bark-cut-16-oz-P109c16). Add the new customer discount (http://www.pennherb.com/Coupons), and it’s about $25/lb depending on your shipping option.

  22. tim May 16, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

    I just got some bark (1lb) from Penn Herb co ltd. pennherb.com not cheap but they had bark

    30.00 dollars/lb

  23. Baile Felix Cazare June 20, 2014 at 9:25 pm #

    Cazare Moieciu

    Excellent post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed!
    Very useful info specially the last part :) I care
    for such information much. I was seeking this particular
    information for a very long time. Thank you and good luck.

  24. Ron August 28, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

    Here’s a great source for Cinchona! http://Www.pennherb.com. Best quality at a fair price.

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