By Matthew Latkiewicz

As seen on DrinkTV’s original series, Drinktionary. Watch all the A to Z’s of alcohol here.

Q is for quinine, mostly because it’s a Q word, but also because quinine is the bitter flavor in tonic water, and tonic water is the tonic water in the gin and tonic of course.

The gin and tonic is like the peanut butter and jelly of the drinking world to me, not in terms of taste, obviously, but in terms of how perfect they are for one another. It is my drink of choice for afternoon summer drinking mostly because of how little work I have to put into it relative to how much I enjoy it.

But back to quinine. In addition to giving tonic water it’s particular flavor, quinine is perhaps more importantly (or maybe not) an anti-malarial drug. It’s not so much in use today, but from the 1600s until about 1940, it was the main game in town when it came to fighting off malaria. So where does quinine come from and why is it in my gin and tonic. And why does it sound like a bad name from the Star Wars universe? “Quinine! Leave the droid be. The imperial forces can’t be far behind.”

Quinine is an alkaloid, which I assume you know the meaning of, since everyone knows what an alkaloid is. The “plant origin” of quinine is the bark from a type of tree native to Peru called the Cinchona.

Apparently the genus got it’s name after bark from the trees saved the Countess of Chinchon – who was the wife of a Spanish Viceroy of Peru – from something resembling malaria. That may be apocryphal, but it makes sense. The native Andean people, at the time under Spanish imperialist rule, had been using the bark for years to treat all sorts of the maladies. When the Jesuit missionaries started showing up with their bibles and beards in the 1600s, they realized the bark could be used to treat malaria and sent it and seeds back for study.

As it continues to be today, Malaria was a huge problem for any population in tropical or semi-tropical environments ripe with mosquitos. This was exacerbated when the era of colonialism really kicked off, and you had all these linen panted Europeans traveling to and dying in the jungles of their newly stolen lands. This would not do, and so the rush to acquire as much chinchona bark began. 

Initially, the bark was pulverized and made into a tincture or taken straight as a anti-malarial treatment, but in 1820, two French scientists figured out that the quinine was what they were really after in the chinchona, so they developed a process to extract it, increasing the potency of the drug.

But also, it’s bitterness. The chinchona bark is almost unpalatably bitter, and so the Europeans in the colonies, would often take the drug in a glass of wine or with sugar. The desire to get people to take their quinine was so great in France during the invasion of Algeria that the government ordered vintners to create wines with quinine in them. This is how we get the category of fortified wines called quinquinas, which includes Dubonnet, and Lillet, the latter of which goes into a Vesper, the drink invented by James Bond in Ian Flemings first bond book Casino Royale.

The British way to take their quinine in India was to add it to a glass of soda water, sugar, and gin, thereby inventing for important medical reasons the gin and tonic, the best afternoon drinking drink there is, imperialist roots notwithstanding.

Q is for Quinine. 


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