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Just The Tonic

Just the Tonic 2
Written by Gin Foundry

There are dozens upon dozens of Gin books available today. They range from the cocktail focused all the way to the history of specific eras and how they informed the spirit. There are glossaries of terms, listings of brands, distillation notes, advice and broader, more whimsical tours around the world of Gin. Our shelves groan under the weight of them and we seem to open a new one every Christmas or birthday.  There’s not just something for everyone, but something about all of the facets of gin that one could ever want to delve into.

Weirdly, though, while the Tonic world has steadily caught up with the Gin world, literature surrounding it has been pretty paltry until now. Certainly, its been more pamphlet than tome.

Thankfully, in 2019, The Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew stepped in to rectify that, releasing a fully fledged, jaw-droppingly beautiful book that separates fact from fiction and medicinal from recreational, weaving the botanical, historical, cultural and, naturally, Gin-related nature of this magical drink into some brilliantly linear words.

It is a mightily difficult task and a crazy story to tell, but it’s one that we can confirm was placed in the right hands. Kim Walker, a trained medical herbalist who now specialises in the history of plant medicines (also currently working on a PhD on cinchona at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Royal Holloway, University of London), teamed up with Mark Nesbitt, the curator of the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens to spin this yarn.

The pair put their uniquely placed skill sets and expert knowledge to work, dissecting their way through the subject matter using the garden’s archives to full effect. Walker explains  “Kew Gardens has the largest collection of cinchona barks, herbarium and archives in the world. Roughly, there’s around a thousand bark specimens and another thousand pressed plants (herbarium),  as well as vast amounts of illustrations. There are also really unique archives based on the correspondence between Kew and the India Office and the government, collectors and planters over in South America. It’s a really rich archive”.

Just The Tonic begins with the discovery of quinine, the history of malaria and the politics of plantations in the early years, with the story veering from early discovery, uses and folklore to more modern anecdotes. “I’m really interested in Medicinal plants and have been working in that area for years now. We’ve got a hundred thousand economic botany objects at KEW and one of the largest sub-collections in that is cinchona. I wanted to know why was it so big and why was it so important – Cinchona has got such an interesting history.” 

Other than studiously researched historical facts presented alongside some really lovely imagery (the botanical art, vintage labels and posters are particularly eye catching), what’s impressive about the book is the way it doesn’t just bust the myths associated with the legends, but explains just how they came to be and the likely reasons they twisted over time.

With the story of quinine as an antimalarial well covered (specifically, the historical issues around understanding the illness and the reasons for slow adoption in some countries), the book shifts gears into the cultural history of soda water, going from the first references of quinine and soda in 1835, to tonic wines and, subsequently, the birth of tonic water. It doesn’t shy away from the nebulous origins of how quinine, alcohol and malaria came together, with some cleverly observed reasons as to why the timeline doesn’t add up breaking those all too familiar myths wide open.

Other than the text, what it does well is to allow all of this information to simply bubble to the surface. It never feels like a laboured historical explanation, rather a natural history recounted by two authors backed by a design team with an understanding of the power of organised story-telling.

Just The Tonic never takes the convenient narrative to explain away a complicated history, instead it accepts that just as with Gin, the truth of how something came to be usually lies in a series of strands that converge to form what we know today. It is a far harder challenge to take on, let alone deliver in a way that is as cohesive as they have achieved. Through their work, Walker and Nesbitt demonstrate how much has never really been explored about tonic and how much more there is to say about it and learn further.

It’s researched with all the accuracy you would expect from scientists, and it is presented in a way that you would expect from Kew Gardens – visually easy, consumer friendly and ultimately gift-worthy. The result is something that is simple to understand, yet never dumbed down. 

In all the praise that has been heaped on this book by those in the publishing industry, what has not yet been fully been appreciated is just how large a service it does to Gin. Gin as a category would be nothing without Tonic. Even in the UK today, over 70% of gin is consumed in a G&T, a percentage that’s higher in other countries such as Spain or Belgium.

Despite this, the lazy recounting (and we count ourselves as being guilty as charged here) of tonic’s origin myths have been perpetuated over and again. The very little history that is grounded by academic research has been assumed as fact, and the lack of understanding between what was adopted from the early medicinal use of quinine and what emerged out of the cultural history of tonic wines never evolved into the kind of nuance being suggested in Kew’s book.

Taken as a whole, the book infers that when one considers all of the facets of cinchona, of antimalarials, of tonic wine and tonic water, it’s more likely that the Gin & Tonic has its origins in tonic wines, digestives / aperitifs, as opposed to something that emerged from a medicine. Walker explains “There’s this story that it was taken by officers as a daily preventative in the Tropics. We’re not saying that’s not true – someone somewhere will no doubt have done that – but what we are saying is that it is a lot more complicated than that. If you look at all the history and how drinking alcohol as medicine, the dates around daily preventatives along with the type of alcohol used (more often than not brandy, rum, wine) and compare it to drinking for pleasure and the kind of things gin was being used in before the G&T (gin slings, gin and bitters), all of these threads come together around 1858-1868 – it’s just not that simple as a narrative”.

In showing the complex and layered tapestry of tonic water culturally, botanically and medicinally, this book evolves the understanding of the G&T and therefore Gin in ways that the dozens of new books emerging about the category don’t even touch upon. That’s saying something, too, as while the team are not going to revisit it for a good year or so, the amount of additional content they uncovered means likely future editions will have much more to unravel. From soda water, the use of quinine in the Temperance movement or more about the process of extraction from the bark – they keep unearthing interesting areas to potentially include.

Here’s the kicker though. It’s published by Kew Gardens, an establishment that employs hundreds of scientists who dedicate careers to better understand botanicals and the environments they grow in. All of the money that is generated by book sales funds more research, better bio-understanding and the continuation of their vital work.

It is fascinating in its own right, enlightening for those who love gin and visually engrossing for those who are searching for a coffee table addition, as well as being charitable. There are few books that will ever appeal to quite so many people and that’s why we consider it to be just the tonic for Gin book lovers this year.

Pick up a copy here: Kew Gardens: Just The Tonic