We’ve all seen expensive tonic waters in the grocery store, but are they worth the price?
[12-2018 – We just added Portland Syrups “Rose City Tonic Water”.]
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 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.
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 $1.62 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 $1.54 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 mouthfeel of smaller bubbles.
Cost: 1.43 per 8-ounce can. 90 calories
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, so about 22 cocktails. 24 calories per serving. You can find a two-pack on Amazon for $26.
This is another concentrate, and it is worth seeking out – the best source I’ve found is the manufacturer’s website.
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 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 is very difficult to find, so you’ll probably 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.
New for 2018, I found this tonic at a high-end specialty foods 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 a 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: $3 per 9.3 oz bottle. 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: $2.62 per 6.8 oz. 64.4 calories.
Ingredients: water (infused with cinchona bark and dried rose petal), cane sugar, citric acid.
Notes: This is another concentrate that you mix with seltzer, in this case 1/4 ounce with 2 oz. of gin. Initial impressions (will be updated in a week or so): very clean, refreshing, but 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 calorie count is slightly lower, but I’d prefer more bitterness.
Overall, this would be a good beginners 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.
I had never seen this before, so when I came across it during the 2016 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. Up front is has strong citrus and lemongrass flavors, but this devolves to a strange flavor profile of bitter and yet odd almost artificial sweetener notes on the finish. Adding insult to injury, the water went flat before we could finish our drinks.
Ingredients: carbonated water, cane sugar, citric acid, natural flavor (lemon, lemongrass, lime and other natural flavors), quinine.
Cost: $1.50 per 12 oz can. 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, 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 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 $1.74 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 soda 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 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:$1.31 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 overly large bubbles were annoying. Somewhat bland with no real cinchona flavor, and 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
- Fever Tree
- Llanllyr Source
- Hansen’s Natural
- La Nostra Acqua Tonic
- 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 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 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!
Updates – 2/18. We retested all of the tonic waters which had changes to the ingredient label – 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. ]