Food & Drink

Yes, you can make your own tonic water

If you’re looking for a better tonic for your high-end gin, there are plenty of options – or you can make it yourself.
If you’re looking for a better tonic for your high-end gin, there are plenty of options – or you can make it yourself. Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT

I find few things as refreshing in summer as a proper gin and tonic. And while I have many opinions on gin, I also think we should pay attention to using better ingredients with our booze to make better drinks.

You can use a great tonic to make up for mediocre gin, but the reverse is rarely true. These days, you can get decent, even good, tonic. But I still find the pricier brands lack the depth and bite my palate craves.

You can probably see where I am going with this: Let’s make our own tonic. It’s super easy and you can dial in the flavors you like most.

I am not going to tell you I always have a jar of this in my refrigerator. I’m not that diligent, motivated or organized. But I do make it two or three times a year when the storebought stuff is just not cutting it.

What is tonic, anyway? Quinine, from the bark of the cinchona tree, has been used for hundreds of years to prevent and treat malaria. Because it’s bitter, it was dissolved in a mix of carbonated water and sugar, making tonic water.

Tonic became incredibly popular for the masses during the Victorian era of the great explorers as a way to bring a little adventure to your English manor while reading dispatches from David Livingstone or Percy Fawcett. Adding gin to it was a quintessentially English way to mask some of the bitterness and to add a taste of home for those on assignment in India or other colonies.

Today you can sometimes find cinchona bark at large international grocery stores, like Super G Mart, or order it online from Two small packages will do it.

The recipe is merely a guide. There are lots of ways to tailor it to your tastes. We once had a gin and tonic party that included seven tonics, two homemade. Ingredients that you might try: lemongrass, grapefruit, sage, thyme, rosemary or peppercorns.

Once you have your tonic made, you can make the gin and tonic of your mouth’s dreams. Tinker with the amount of tonic syrup to find the balance you like best.

Kevin and Heather Gavagan are Charlotte cocktail nerds who host public and private cocktail events. Follow them on Twitter (@hauntbarCLT) or email

Gin & Tonic

1 1/2 ounces gin

1 ounce tonic syrup

Seltzer to fill

Pour all of the ingredients in a Collins glass over ice. Give it a gentle stir to combine. Serve with a straw and a lime wedge for garnish.

Yield: 1 serving.

Tonic Syrup

1/4 cup cinchona chunks

Zest of 1 orange, 1 lemon and 1 lime

1 teaspoon allspice berries

2 cardamom pods

1/2 teaspoon grains of paradise

1/4 cup citric acid (see note)

Pinch of kosher salt

4 cups water

2 cups sugar

Put all of the ingredients except the sugar into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let the ingredients steep until cool. Strain to remove as much of the sediment as possible. (I’m not particularly picky about sediment, but some people use a standard strainer for the first run and a coffee press a couple of times after that.)

Return the liquid to the saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar and heat until dissolved and clear. Depending on your taste, you can hold a little of the sugar back, taste as it heats and add as you see fit.

Let the liquid cool again and put in a bottle. It should last for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. You can add an ounce of vodka to help keep it a little longer.

Notes: Grains of paradise look like peppercorns but come from a member of the ginger family. Look for them at well-stocked supermarkets or specialty food stores. Look for citric acid with the canning supplies at supermarkets or discount stores like Target or Walmart.

Yield: About 3 cups.