We’ve all seen expensive tonic waters in the grocery store, but are they worth the price ?
[8-2016 – because I’ve noticed some of the ingredients had been tweaked a bit, I’ve gotten tasters together and repeated the comparison from a few years ago. This review reflects quite a few changes and some additions. Fever Tree doesn’t have quite as pithy a quality, and Hansen’s isn’t quite as good. Overall, prices on the boutique brands have dropped considerably, while the commercial brands have done the opposite. Changes in ingredients, cost, and taste have been noted below. ]
Over the years many people have asked me what are the best tonic waters, and if they are worth the cost. Over the last week, I sat down several times with groups of hardy tasters to compare as many as we could find, both by themselves, and, once the worst were eliminated, paired with gin and soda from a siphon. (It should be noted, that some tonics may go quite well with gin, but not with vodka.)
One problem with rating anything, is that taste is subjective. I may like something bitter and floral, you may prefer smooth citrus flavors. These days there seems to be a trend away from the flavor of cinchona (quinine), possibly amid claims that many companies do not practice sustainable harvesting. Using our tasting notes, pick the characteristics that are most important to you. Some of them are rather expensive so you may wish to throw price into your equation.
Included in this roundup are Fentimans, Q Tonic, Fever Tree, Fever Tree Naturally Light, Schweppes, Hansen’s Natural, Jack Rudy Cocktail Company syrup, John’s Premium Tonic, Powell & Mahoney, Whole Foods and my homemade version.
Fentimans describes their tonic as “The world’s first botanically brewed tonic water is made with a blend of herbal infusions and lemongrass extract which results in a unique, refreshing and distinctive citrus flavor.”
Ingredients: carbonated water, sugar, citric acid, tonic flavor (water, lemon oil, ethanol, lemongrass oil), quinine.
Notes: As a group, we found this tonic to be somewhat acrid. It had strong herbal, floral notes which didn’t tend to blend well with any of our gins, rather it competed for attention. Pithy flavors of white rind dominated, though strong bitter orange citrus notes were also present. It is a bit astringent, resulting in a dry mouth feel. The quinine flavor was muddled and masked. In comparison to my tasting in 2008, this had fewer bubbles than any of the others, and came across almost flat. Our overall change in perception made me go back and compare the ingredients of their original blend, and I found that they have changed. It is also the most expensive of all the standard store brands, and we didn’t feel it was worth the extra cost.
Cost: about $2.15 a bottle – 9.3 oz. 73 calories per serving
Fever tree is now making an entire line of tonic waters, most of which I haven’t been able to find here in Portland Oregon. However, we did chase down a couple of them. From the manufacturer, “The brand name chosen due to fever tree being the colloquial name for the cinchona tree in which quinine, a key ingredient for tonic, is found. The highest quality quinine was sourced from the Rwanda Congo border and blended with spring water and eight botanical flavours, including rare ingredients such as marigold extracts and a bitter orange from Tanzania. Crucially, no artificial sweeteners, preservatives or flavorings were added.”
Ingredients: Carbonated Spring Water, Cane Sugar, Citric Acid, Natural Flavouring, Quinine
Notes: The aroma is fresh with lots of citrus, as is the taste. It is soft, balanced and easy to drink by itself. Compared to our first comparisons in 2014, it doesn’t have much of a quinine taste. The carbonation is strong, but the bubbles very fine – all of us liked the mouth feel. We felt that the flavor is a bit too limey; but for those who prefer their tonic drinks with lots of citrus and a smooth finish, this may be the best choice for you. Just don’t expect a lot of quinine flavor.
Cost: about $1.74 per 6.8 ounce glass bottle. 66 calories
We had a few requests to add this to our tasting panel, so we did. From the manufacturer, “Our Naturally Light Tonic Water is the world’s first all natural, lower calorie tonic water. With 58% fewer calories, there is no need to compromise on taste as this delicious, crisp tonic water combines fruit sugars and natural quinine with citrus, aromatic botanical and soft spring water.”
Ingredients: Carbonated Spring Water, Pure Fructose (Fruit Sugar), Citric Acid, Natural Flavouring, Quinine
Notes: They claim it has 58% fewer calories than their regular tonic water, but not one of our tasters liked it. We found an unusually bitter aftertaste that was off-putting. (more to come).
Cost: about $1.74 per 6.8 ounce glass bottle.
“Our Hansen’s Natural Tonic has just a touch of citrus to make it an open invitation for your favorite spirits and just enough quinine to make it an itty bitty teeny weeny bit bitter.”
Ingredients: Filtered carbonated water, cane sugar, citric acid, natural flavors with extracts of California citrus, quinine.
Notes: “A touch of citrus”? No, more like heavy orange citrus notes – if you don’t like citrus in your G&T, you’ll want to skip this one. Some tasters remarked that it didn’t even taste like tonic water. Slightly sweet, slightly bitter, light on quinine flavor. A bit metallic. Lots of large bubbles – even more than the last tasting. Three of us prefer the mouth feel of smaller bubbles.
Cost: 1.43 per 8 ounce can. 90 calories
Our homemade tonic is from a recipe that was originally developed by Portland bartender Kevin Ludwig, who is now at Laurelhurst Market. It was the most complex of all that we tasted. Part of this is because you can add as many ingredients to the recipe as you’d like, so you can balance it to your own taste buds. Overall, it stood tall against the other tonics, and balanced well with gin. The flavors were complex and slightly citrus, without being over the top.
Ingredients: water, cane sugar, citric acid, cinchona bark, limes, lemongrass, salt.
Notes: Flavors are going to vary greatly depending on the ingredients you use. Jeffery Morganthaller of Clyde Common switches agave syrup for sugar, and adds more types of citrus. Both are good recipes.
I made one batch with cinchona powder that had been sitting around for two years, which was a mistake. Though stored in a sealed bag, the tonic had a slight “dusty” taste, and was clobbered by the citric acid. With fresh cinchona, it balanced better.
Cost: mostly in the time it takes to make it – inexpensive, but a few hours of on and off work. You’ll find the story of my adventure making tonic from scratch here, along with a recipe. For best results, use a soda siphon for your final cocktail.
“With a backbone of quinine, culled from the Cinchona Tree, we’ve added a delicate mix of botanicals, and then sweetened it with real cane sugar; the final product is a complex mixture that introduces a fine bitterness to any cocktail, and a great pairing with the botanicals of the finest Gins in the world.”
Ingredients: Quinine concentrate, water, citric acid, sugar, lemongrass, orange peel.
Notes: This is a small batch tonic concentrate from a company based in Charleston, South Carolina. Overly sweet, this tonic smoothed out the gin so much I couldn’t tell it was there. The quinine taste was completely overwhelmed. This made for a very refreshing citrusy drink with hints of orange and lime, along with allspice notes, but not what I am looking for. It’s like Gin & Tonic on for beginners. I wanted this to be my favorite, and was surprised that it rated as low as it did. On the other hand, I’m saving the bottle for those times when I just want something light and refreshing and for gin tonic friends.
Cost: $20.00 for 17 ounces of syrup concentrate to be mixed with club soda. ¾ ounces is recommended, so about 22 cocktails. 24 calories per serving.
This is another concentrate, and it is worth seeking out.
Ingredients: Organic Agave Nectar, Cinchona bark, Citric Acid, Natural Oils, herbs, juice and spices.
Notes: Honey brown tonic with soft agave, earthy notes. Fragrant bright citrus palate, and complex herbal flavors with a slight sweet note. A good balance of cinchona. This was our favorite of all the commercial tonic mixes, and second only to homemade tonic water. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find, so you’ll probably need to order it directly from the source.
Cost: $6.99 for a 4 ounce bottle plus shipping, which works out to eight cocktails.
I had never seen this before, so when I came across it during the latest tasting, I added it to the mix. It is described as “Tonic, Naturally Flavored Sparkling Cocktail Mixer”. Though pretty expensive, it was universally disliked by our tasters. It has a strange flavor profile of bitter and yet odd almost artificial sweetener notes on the finish.
Ingredients: carbonated water, cane sugar, citric acid, natural flavor (lemon, lemongrass, lime and other natural flavor), quinine.
Cost: $7.99 per 25.4 oz. Serving size 4 ounces, 45 calories.
Q Tonic touts that their quinine is hand-picked, that they use organic agave as the sweetener (not my preference), all natural, 60% fewer calories than regular tonic water.
Ingredients: carbonated water, organic agave, natural bitters, quinine, citric acid
Notes In our tasting a few years ago, Q Tonic didn’t do well, with tasters noting a medicinal, slightly astringent taste with a metallic, bitter, and pithy quality. This time the tonic did much better, rising to the number one overall choice of the big commercial brands. The strong citrus notes are toned down a bit. This is an easy drinking tonic – but stands up to gin just fine. Three tasters still described it as boring. This one also works well with vodka.
Cost: about $1.75 for a 6.25 ounce bottle. 40 calories per serving.
Ingredients: carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, sodium benzoate, quinine, natural flavors.
Notes: This tonic has more in common with 7-up than tonic water. It was citrus, but too sweet, and completely overwhelmed the gin. Most of us didn’t like it alone over ice either. We didn’t try it in a vodka tonic, but I think it might work well in one. Tasters called it “too fruity”.
Cost:$1.50 per 10 ounce bottle. 90 calories per serving
Ingredients: water, cane sugar, citric acid, natural flavors, quinine
Notes: Another sweet, heavy on citrus tonic water. The large bubbles were annoying. Somewhat bland with no real cinchona flavor, and though well-balanced, an unremarkable tonic water. All of the tasters preferred Hansen’s which had a similar cost.
Cost: $.50 per can. 140 calories
When we combined the overall scores from each taster, the tonics scored the following, from best to worst.
- John’s Premium Tonic
- Q Tonic
- Fever Tree
- Hansen’s Natural
- Fever Tree Naturally Light
- Whole Foods
- Jack Rudy Cocktail Company
- Powell & Mahoney
When it comes down to it, the tonic you are going to like depends on your personal taste and what brand of liquor you want to mix it with. The biggest question is whether the boutique versions are worth the price. I like my recipe, and if I had lots of time and energy, I’d make it every time, otherwise I would go down the list in order. Choose by the characteristics that are important to you.
Whatever direction you take, enjoy your drink, and think about this: Tonic water will fluoresce under ultraviolet light. In fact, the sensitivity of quinine is such that it will fluoresce in direct sunlight. Make yourself a drink and go outside to frolic on a sunny day. It’s for science!