We’ve all seen expensive tonic waters in the grocery store, but are they worth the price?
[6/2020 – Coming as soon as we can get our tasters together (Covid-19 issues), a re-tasting of all tonics, and the addition of Neverclear Tonic water. Whole Foods brand is discontinued. I will also add my impressions of the Never Clear brand. ]
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 with no mixers 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 and vice versa.)
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 Spectacular, Tonic, Fever-Tree, Fever-Tree Naturally Light, Jack Rudy Cocktail Company syrup, John’s Premium Tonic, La Nostra Acqua Tonica Di Chinotto, Llanllyr Source, Never Clear, Portland Syrups, Schweppes, and my homemade version.
Fentimans describe 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: At this point, I have been unable to find this brand in any US stores. This version seems to have been discontinued, though you can still get it in the UK where it is made. .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 mouthfeel. 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. Fentimans now have a “Premium Indian” version which I’ll try as soon as I can find it. Fentimans also has a “Connoisseurs” version which only seems to be available in Europe. Has anyone tried it?
Cost: about $5.15 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 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 flavors, 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 Flavors, Quinine
Notes: The aroma and taste is fresh with lots of lemon citrus. It is soft, balanced, and easy to drink by itself. Compared to our first comparisons in 2014, it doesn’t have as much of a quinine taste, and the carbonation isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be, and what was there quickly fades, which we found disappointing (I’ll buy another bottle and double-check shortly). What bubbles were there are very fine – all of us loved the mouthfeel. New to this tasting is a higher level of pithiness which leads to a long and slightly unpleasant aftertaste. We felt that the flavor is a bit too citrusy; 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 $0.22/Fl Oz. 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 botanicals and soft spring water.”
Ingredients: Carbonated Spring Water, Pure Fructose (Fruit Sugar), Citric Acid, Natural Flavouring, Quinine
Notes: Fever-Tree claims it has 58% fewer calories than their regular tonic water. From the manufacturer, “Citrus, aromatic botanicals, spring water and a touch of fruit sugar create a fresh, crisp taste balanced by the bitterness of real quinine. Unfortunately, none one of our testers liked it. It is very mild, though we found an unusually bitter aftertaste that was off-putting.
Cost: about $0.22/Fl Oz
Note: This tonic water has been discontinued (2020). I’ll look for something in a similar price range to replace it.
Our homemade tonic is 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 with 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 bark, 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. After reading the story of their founder, I really wanted to like this tonic. But when paired with the recommended amount of club soda, our tasters thought it was overly sweet; this tonic smoothed out the gin so much we 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 for beginners. I’m saving the bottle for those times when I just want something light and refreshing.
Cost: $16.00 for 17 ounces of syrup concentrate to be mixed with club soda. ¾ ounces is recommended. It works out to about $0.24/Fl oz. but you’ll need soda water too. 24 calories per serving. You can find a two-pack on Amazon for $26.
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 with complex herbal flavors with a slightly 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 difficult to find, so you may need to order it directly from the source.
Cost: $14 for a 4-ounce bottle including shipping, which works out to eight cocktails. You can get a 2 16oz bottles for $63 including shipping.
In 2018, I found this tonic at a high-end specialty food store. It’s from Italy and is labeled as “tonic water made from citrus”. From the name, I didn’t expect it to contain quinine, but it does, though not much.
Ingredients: Carbonated Water, Cane Sugar, Lemon Juice, Natural Vegetable Extracts (Infusion of fresh citrus Myrtifolia – Chinotto) and Quinine.
Notes: I was interested because of the use of Myrtifolia, which, if you’ve spent much time in Italy you have probably tried. The common name is the myrtle-leaved orange tree, and the fruit does look like oranges though they are rather bitter. The result is very smooth tonic water with a floral overly sweet finish that reminded me of the 7Up formula from 30 years ago – and it’s reflected in the calorie count. The finish is pleasant and more strongly citrus-flavored than the others in this roundup. I like it as a standalone drink, however, it is completely overpowered by gin.
Cost: $0.67 / Fl oz. 100 calories
Another 2018 find from an upscale food store, this tonic water is imported from Llanllyr Wales. From the manufacturer, “Since 1180, when the Great Lord Rhys first settled the land, natural springs underneath the organic fields of Llanllyr have been supplying its inhabitants with some of the purest, all-natural drinking water in the world. Llanllyr sits in the idyllic Welsh countryside at the base of a glacial valley. The glacial sands and persistent rainfall work together to produce Llanllyr SOURCE, a Natural Spring Water with a perfect mineral balance and superb taste.”
Ingredients: Carbonated Spring Water, Pure Sugar, Quinine, Citric Acid, Ascorbic Acid, Sicilian Lemon.
Notes: Though it has a light mild flavor, most of us were bothered by the strong aftertaste of ascorbic acid. The combination of the Sicilian lemon flavor and a plethora of bubbles was strong enough to remind several of us of 7up, and with little bitterness, it was almost as smooth. However, it was overpowered by gin, though you won’t need to add citrus when you make your drink – it has plenty of its own.
Cost: $0.28 /Fl oz. 64.4 calories.
Ingredients: water, pure cane sugar, fresh citrus (oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes), cinchona bark, Lemongrass and citric acid.
Notes: Initial informal tasting puts this near the top of our ratings. It’s nicely balanced with just the right sweetness but doesn’t lose the cinchona flavor. One thing that threw off all the tasters is a strong iced tea flavor. We want to compare the tonics again and will update them all at that time. Their recommended ration is 2 oz gin in a 12 oz glass with ice then fill with soda water which makes 16 drinks.
Cost: $1.25 / Fl oz. 0.75 oz.
Notes: This is another concentrate that you mix with seltzer, in this case, 1/4 ounce with 2 oz. of gin. It’s very clean, refreshing, but with a slightly odd finish that I’m pretty sure comes from the rose petal. Adding a bit more lime than usual helped ameliorate this. The taste was very slightly bitter. Overall, none of us were thrilled – we felt it lacked character. We miss the cinchona flavor which is barely present. The rose notes tasted odd, and we didn’t enjoy the addition. The lack of cinchona means not as much sugar needs to be used as-is in many tonics, so the calorie count is slightly lower, but I’d prefer more bitterness.
Overall, this would be a good beginner’s tonic, and nice on a hot day when drinking with food, but none of us would buy it again.
Cost: about $16.00 for a 16-ounce bottle which makes about 20 cocktails. 35 calories per serving.
Q Tonic touts that their quinine is hand-picked, that they use organic agave as the sweetener (not my preference), all-natural, and has 60% fewer calories than regular tonic water. Over the past few years, they tweaked the formula and renamed it as “Spectacular” tonic.
Ingredients: carbonated water, organic agave, citric acid, quinine, natural flavors
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 from previous tastings resulting in an easy-drinking tonic with lots of medium-sized bubbles. Overall it stands up to gin just fine, though it has an overarching sweetness that may bother some people. Three tasters still describe it as boring. This one also works well with vodka too.
Cost: about $0.24 Fl oz. 40 calories per serving.
Notes: Schweppes tonic water has been around longer than just about any other brand. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is good. This drink has more in common with soda than a tonic water. It is 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 better with it. Tasters called it “too fruity”. That being said, it is a good choice for those new to the wonders of a good gin and tonic.
Cost:$0.13/Fl oz. 90 calories per serving
Ingredients: carbonated water, invert sugar, citric acid, natural flavors, quinine
Notes: I’ve been hearing rumors this tonic has been discontinued since Amazon bought Whole Foods. I’ll check this weekend.
Another sweet tonic water, heavy on citrus. The overly large bubbles were annoying. Somewhat bland with no real cinchona flavor; an unremarkable tonic water. All of the tasters preferred Hansen’s which had a similar cost. Perhaps the calorie count gives an indicator of the problem – almost double the other tonic waters in this roundup.
Cost: $.50 per 12-oz 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 Spectacular Tonic water
- Llanllyr Source
- La Nostra Acqua Tonic
- Fever-Tree Naturally Light
- Portland Syrups, Rose City Tonic
- Jack Rudy Cocktail Company
When it comes down to it, the tonic you are going to like depends on your personal taste and what brand of gin or vodka you mix it with.
The biggest question is whether the boutique versions are worth the price. I like my homemade tonic recipe, and if I had lots of time and energy, I’d make it myself. Choose 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!
6/20 – Whole Foods no longer has a house brand – removed. Fentimans has changed their formula, and at this point I can’t find it in the US. Whole Foods brand also seems to be discontinued and I’ve removed it. Added Never Clear Brand. More to come!
2/18. We retested all of the tonic waters which had changed from when we first tasted – most of them. In addition, we added two more that have come out since our 2016 tasting. The results of these reviews reflect quite a few changes. Fever-Tree doesn’t have quite as pithy a quality, and Hansen’s isn’t quite as good, so the notes have been updated to reflect that. 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. ]