Over the years many people have asked me what are the best tonic waters, and if they are worth the cost. I’ve done several separate reviews over the years, but never a large roundup, and haven’t included the newer concentrated syrups that are now available. I’ve also tweaked my homemade version this month, and I wanted to see how it compares. Over the last week, I sat down several times with a group of five hardy friends to compare as many as we could find, both by themselves, and paired with gin. 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. For that reason I am including a summary of our tasting notes. You can pick the characteristics that are most important to you. I should point out that some of these are rather expensive, so you may wish to throw price into your equation.
Included in this roundup are Fentimans, Q Tonic, Fever Tree, Schweppes, Hansen’s Natural, Jack Rudy Cocktail Company syrup, John’s Premium Tonic, and my homemade version. Five of us participated in a blind tasting over two different evenings.
I will conclude this series next week with a look at soda siphons. Are they worth the cost and effort?
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, natural flavoring, quinine, herbal infusions (juniper berry, kaffir lime leaf).
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 citrus notes were also present. It is a bit astringent, resulting in a dry mouth feel. The quinine flavor was muddled. 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 found that they have been changed. I would not buy this tonic again.
Cost: about $2.60 a bottle – 9.3 oz. 73 calories per serving
Fever Tree – “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: water, cane sugar, citric acid, natural flavors, quinine, bitter orange
Notes: The aroma is fresh with lots of citrus, as is the taste. It is soft in texture, balanced and very easy to drink by itself, though it has a definite quinine taste. The carbonation is strong, but the bubbles very fine – all of us liked the mouth feel. My only complaint is that the flavor is a bit too limey; but for those who prefer their tonic drinks with lots of citrus, this may be the best choice for you. It is the most balanced of all of the tonics we tried.
Cost: about $1.60 per 6.8 ounce glass bottle. 90 calories
Hansen’s Natural – “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: Heavy orange citrus notes – if you don’t like citrus in your G&T, you’ll want to skip this one. Slightly sweet, slightly bitter, light on quinine flavor. A bit metallic. Lots of large bubbles – three of us prefer the mouth feel of smaller bubbles. All of our tasters thought it was the best of the supermarket brands.
Cost: .61 per 8 ounce can. 90 calories
The 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 citrusy, though I was using a newer recipe that had slightly less citric acid than my original recipe.
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 it was 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.
Jack Rudy Cocktail Company – “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: $23.00 for 17 ounces of syrup concentrate to be mixed with club soda. ¾ ounces is recommended, so it works out to about $1.00 per drink.
John’s Premium Tonic: This is another concentrate, and it is worth seeking out.
Ingredients: cinchona bark, fresh citrus, (orange, lemon, lime), lemongrass, organic agave nectar, other flavorings.
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: $8 for a 4 ounce bottle plus shipping. Uses ½ ounce with 1-½ ounces gin, so figure at least $1.00 per cocktail.
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, lemon juice extract
Notes: Three tasters noted a medicinal taste. Slightly astringent with a metallic, bitter, and pithy quality. Strong citrus notes, especially lemon. This is an easy drinking tonic – perhaps too easy; we felt it didn’t stand up well against anything but the lightest gin. Two tasters described it as boring. It did work well with vodka, so you might give that a try.
Cost: about $2.00 for a 6.25 ounce bottle. By far the lowest calorie count of the group – just 24 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 citrusy, but too sweet, completely overwhelming 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.
Cost:$1.50 per 10 ounce bottle. 90 calories
Notes: Another sweet, heavy on citrus tonic water. 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.
Ingredients: water, cane sugar, citric acid, natural flavors, quinine
Cost: $3 for six cans. 140 calories per can
When we combined the overall scores from each taster, the tonics scored the following, from best to worst.
- John’s Premium Tonic
- Fever Tree
- Hansen’s Natural
- Whole Foods
- Jack Rudy Cocktail Company
- Q Tonic
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. Chose 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!