Making Tonic Water from Scratch, Part II [Note: Part I is here]
The next day I woke with new energy and determination, and fairly bounded into the kitchen, wondering if I had enough ingredients for a second batch of tonic. My socks stuck firmly to the floor with every step, a footprint of fuzz left behind. Undaunted, I forged ahead. You’d think I would have learned the first time, but then I am a fairly typical male. I made the syrup and added the ingredients. Once again, I propped the sieve handles on old spice bottles, and went back to cleaning the floor for the tenth time. This time it was the mop handle that knocked everything over. At about the same time, someone came to the door. I’d completely forgotten building maintenance was coming to inspect the patio door seals. Here I was – standing in my boxers, bed-head, with funnels, beakers, and flasks of acrid brown fluid dripping away, a pool of the same expanding across the floor, a strange sweet, chemical smell filling the air. I could tell by the look on their faces that they thought I was running a drug lab – Breaking Bad come to life.
Sometime during the futile scrubbing process to get the spilled syrup off my floor, a poem by Edgar Allan Poe started running through my head. The Raven. You know it? I hadn’t heard it since college, but the words came flashing back, and as I scrubbed, anger building, the phrases running over and over, I modified it in my mind:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of foodie lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘Tis some visitor,’ Food Dude muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door -
Only this and nothing more.’
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing
Doubting, dreaming dreams no chef e’er dared to dream before.
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token
Plastic bag of quinine broken, just beside my hallway door.
Spilling dust upon my carpet, on my musty hallway floor,
Only this and nothing more.
Back into my condo turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon I heard my Tanquery calling somewhat louder than before.
‘Surely,’ said I, ‘surely few ingredients pose no challenge;
Let me see then, what we have here and this recipe explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this recipe explore; -
Six ingredients, and nothing more!’
Hours later, muscles crying, filters filtering, fines undying,
Sticky counters pulling, quinine in my kitchen drawer.
As I stood there emptying cones, feeling pain within my bones,
Patience flagging, body sagging, reading tonic lore,
Fatigue I could ignore no more, recipe no guarantor
All this trouble, and nothing more.
At that moment, mind a-napping, arms so weary, elbows flapping
On the counter, sweet and lovely; sticky tonic poured.
As I stood there, locked in fear, grasping all the tonic near,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, ‘tonic’
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, ‘tonic’
Merely this and nothing more.
And my tonic, always filtering, still is dripping, ever filtering
On the tiny space it’s dripping just above my oven door;
And its sugar tendrils reaching like a demon, always reaching,
And the oven-light o’er streaming throws its shadow on the floor;
And my floor from out that syrup that lies floating by the door -
Shall be sticky – evermore.
[With apologies to the spirit of Poe]
I finally finished the tonic. Filtering took two days, but when it was finally complete, it poured like beautiful thin honey. The gin and tonics were wonderful, friends raved. It took almost a week before I stopped sticking to things in the kitchen. Despite my bitter feelings for my bitter tonic, I’ve made it several more times.
Here is the recipe from the Mar/April 2007 issue of Imbibe Magazine:
- 4 cups of water
- 3 cups pure cane sugar
- 3 Tbsp quinine (powdered cinchona bark)
- 6 Tbsp. powdered citric acid – check bulk bins at grocery stores
- 3 limes – zested and juiced
- 3 stalks lemongrass, roughly chopped
Make a simple syrup by bringing the sugar and water to a boil until the sugar dissolves. Turn heat to low.
Remove from heat and cool. Strain out any large chunks, then filter through cheesecloth or coffee filters to refine. This can take quite a bit of time and many filters. It helps to let the mix stand over night in the refrigerator to settle out some of the fines, and then carefully pour the liquid off of the top.
Pour into sterilized glass bottles, cover and store in refrigerator. It will keep at least two weeks.
To make your drink, use the following proportions:
- 1/2 oz. tonic syrup
- 1 1/2 oz. gin
- Splash of soda water
- Lime wedge
- Ice cubes
- Glass: double rocks
- Garnish: lime twist, or drop the lime wedge in the drink
I’ve now made the tonic at least a dozen times – when friends taste it, I end up giving them the bottle and have to make it again. Each time I look for shortcuts, many which are mentioned here. Most obviously is a centrifuge, which to my mind might work, but hey, food dude can’t afford these types of things. Even more importantly, I have doubts as to whether the stickiness of the simple syrup would allow it to work properly.
1. With a bit of testing, it became obvious that the simple syrup mixed with quinine bark is what really slows the filtering. I made concentrate of the herbal ingredients, filtered it separately, and then added it to the simple syrup. This worked well, and I was able to cut the entire process to a couple of hours, but I found the tonic didn’t stay in suspension as well as it should. One has to keep stirring the drink, which waters it down. It also left a bit of an edge to the drink, that didn’t mellow over time. Being a purist, this was unacceptable, but in a pinch…
2. Kevin Ludwig suggested that I make the tonic according to his recipe, and let it settle out for five days or so before filtering. Most of the sediment settles out into a gluey mass at the bottom of the jar. If you pour it off carefully and then do the filtering, it is much easier. The tonic also mellows a bit during the process. I think this is the best solution so far, though the filtering is still a bit of a pain. Then there is the issue of me needing instant gratification, and waiting five days for a drink doesn’t fit into my agenda. Note: fast forward to 2013. I now make it this way every time.
3. In my humble opinion, this tonic is lousy when paired with vodka. Save it for a good gin. The NY Times did a huge gin tasting a few weeks ago called “No, Really, It Was Tough: 4 People, 80 Martinis“. Plymouth English Gin won, but I think it would be a bit too smooth here. I’d go with one of these:
The Junipero, made in small quantities by the distilling branch of the Anchor brewery in San Francisco, came on strong with the traditional gin flavors of juniper and citrus, hitting all the right notes, though a little self-consciously.
The No. 3 gin, Cadenhead’s Old Raj from Scotland, at 110 proof, or 55 percent alcohol, was by far the most powerful gin we tasted: Tanqueray and Tanqueray No. 10 at 94.6 proof were the next highest. But while Old Raj packed a punch, its muscularity came across as bright and in control.
Two standbys of the American cocktail cabinet fared well as martinis. Seagram’s Extra Dry came in at No. 4. We found it surprisingly complex in the glass, with fruit, herbal and gingery spice notes, yet it didn’t stray far from the gin ideal, while Gordon’s London Dry adhered to the straight and narrow, with a slight emphasis of spicy cardamom and nutmeg aromas.
If you try to make the tonic, I’d love to hear how it goes.