You know how gin is made, now what about the other half of the equation in your Gin & Tonic? Tonic water actually grows on trees. Cinchona trees.
Tonic water is a carbonated soft drink that contains quinine. In modern times, we have the ability to synthesize quinine in a lab, however historically its only naturally occurring source was the Cinchona tree.
Discovery of the Cinchona plant
Cinchona trees had widespread use as a muscle relaxant by the Quechua people native to Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, to treat shivering and fever. They would mix ground bark of the Cinchona trees with sweetened water to offset the bark's bitter taste, thus producing something similar to modern tonic water.
Malaria is a disease that was brought to South America as a result of European expansions. The mosquitoes which carried the disease loved the jungles of the Amazon, and the disease became widespread there. A Jesuit brother in Lima, Peru noticed that when local people were suffering symptoms of shivering and fever from an onset of malaria, they would treat the victim with their own tonic water mixture! Not only did the symptoms subside - the malaria was actually treated!
This engraved photo showcases a Quechua native child giving the gift of Cinchona (and thereby tonic water) to Europeans.
Very soon, Cinchona bark became the most valuable plant commodity for export back to the Old World, where malaria existed as a problem throughout Europe, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Products derived from Cinchona bark remained the primary source of malaria treatment up until the 1940s. It was known as Jesuit's bark, Peruvian bark, and fever tree bark.
Fever tree also happens to be a brand of tonic water - now you understand the reference!
Widespread use and emergence of the Gin & Tonic
Quinine played a significant role in the colonization of Africa by Europeans. Quinine had been said to be the prime reason Africa ceased to be known as the "white man's grave", because white people would die of malaria when they would go there. A historian has stated, "it was quinine's efficacy that gave colonists fresh opportunities to swarm into the Gold Coast, Nigeria and other parts of west Africa".
The cultivation of the tree was brought by Europeans to all corners of their global empires, including India and Southeast Asia. People would make and drink tonic water on its own, but it was bitter and not the most desirable drink. British officers in India in the early 19th century took to adding a mixture of water, sugar, lime and gin to the quinine in order to make the drink more palatable, thus gin and tonic was born!
Soldiers in India were already given a gin ration, and the sweet concoction was available to everyone with ingredients they already had. Since tonic water is no longer used as an antimalarial, today it contains much less quinine, is usually sweetened, and is consequently much less bitter.
The following image shows a Cinchona tree plantation in India where our illustrated friends were likely getting very drunk off of history's first Gin & Tonics.
Cinchona and Homeopathy
There is one more very interesting story with tonic water, and it relates back to what we mentioned earlier about how the natives treated the new disease of malaria with an herbal remedy that treated its symptoms.
A German doctor named Samuel Hahnemann was translating medical books in the late 1700s, when he came across the discovery of cinchona bark as a treatment for malaria. He disagreed with the reasoning that the book's original author postulated as to why cinchona was an effective treatment. He went on to conduct a test where he, as a healthy individual, consumed cinchona (likely in the form of super-saturated tonic water syrup) and began to feel the symptoms of malaria - the disease that this plant was supposed to cure!
This led him to postulate a healing principle: "that which can produce a set of symptoms in a healthy individual, can treat a sick individual who is manifesting a similar set of symptoms."This principle, like cures like, became the basis for an approach to medicine which he gave the name homeopathy.
At the time in the 1700s, medicine was rather brutal. Apart from infusing herbs into alcohol (essentially gin tinctures) there was a lot of gory and painful medical procedures going around. Pharmaceuticals did not yet exist either. This photo illustrates the personification of homeopathic medicine saving us from the brutal medical practices of the "Age of Enlightenment".
Homeopathy is a controversial school of medicine, and is not suited for widespread remedies for the masses and as a result is dismissed by most modern scholars of medicine. The premise exists that each plant material carries with it its own imprint and personality, where if a healthy individual was to consume homeopathic concoctions produced with that plant then they would begin to experience the symptoms which the medicine would also cure!
Homeopaths say that they can determine the properties of their preparations by following a method which they call "proving". As performed by Hahnemann, provings involved administering various preparations to healthy volunteers. The volunteers were then observed, often for months at a time. They were made to keep extensive journals detailing all of their symptoms at specific times throughout the day. They were forbidden from consuming coffee, tea, spices, or wine for the duration of the experiment; playing chess was also prohibited because Hahnemann considered it to be "too exciting", though they were allowed to drink beer and encouraged to exercise in moderation. Provings are were important in the development of the modern "clinical trial", due to their early use of simple control groups, systematic and quantitative procedures, and some of the first application of statistics in medicine.
Homeopathy did not become particularly popular until it was an interest of the Nazis who studied it extensively. It was also a wonderful German invention, after all! In the 1950s, there were only 75 pure homeopaths practicing in the USA - as of 2007 it has grown into a $2.7 billion dollar industry in America alone.
Homeopathic remedies involve the infusion of trace amounts of substances into little pellets. One then consumes the pellets and action is taken in the system. A popular homeopathic treatment for the flu is a 200C dilution of duck liver, marketed under the name Oscillococcinum.
So now you know! Two big inventions - gin & tonics and homeopathy - came from the Cinchona tree. And in some ways, both are good medicine!