Once, tonic was just a bitter anti-malarial medicine, and sugar, soda, and gin were added to help the medicine go down. The bitterness in tonic comes from quinine, once harvested from Cinchona trees, but now usually synthesized in a lab.
Lately we've seen a lot of high end tonics on store shelves and cocktail lists, boasting natural ingredients (real cinchona bark!) and cane sugar or agave for sweetness. Sounds great, right?
But how do these newer brands stack up in a blind taste test? Is the pricier natural stuff really tastier? We tried ten different brands of tonic water alone and with gin in order to determine our favorite.
Brands We Tried
These brands are distributed in well-known retail stores across the United States:
- Whole Foods 365
- Q Tonic
- Fever Tree
- Canada Dry
- White Rock
Scores were given based on the following criteria: Tonic should be bitter—even a little aggressive—this isn't Sprite you're drinking. But the bitterness should be balanced by delicate sweetness. With the addition of citrusy and herbal notes, tonic should be complex and refreshing, with fine, lively carbonation.
In a separate blind test, a few of our tasters tried each brand with Tanqueray Gin to see how it worked in a G&T.
Why the Losers Lost
Some brands received low scores because they were cloyingly sweet, or they lacked complex citrus and herbal flavors. Others were marked down for the character of their bitterness: more metallic than cinchona bark-laden.
But we also can't discount that tasters may have preferred what tasted like a familiar gin and tonic, and may have awarded high scores to flavors that reminded them of refreshing gin and tonics from the past. Not knowing if they were drinking cheap tonic or cool, new pricey tonic, the more unusual flavors of the premium brands didn't always score well.
If they'd known the price of each glass, they may have rated them differently. (For more on this idea, check out this Stanford study that suggests that people enjoy wine more when they're told it's more expensive.)
#1: Canada Dry (7.6/10)
In the blind tasting, Canada Dry triumphed by 1.4 points out of ten. Tasters noted that it seemed balanced, with enough bitterness and a punch of citric flavor to offset the sweetness (though others thought the lemony flavor tasted artificial. This tonic was refreshing, sweet up front, with smooth bitterness on the finish.
None of the tasters guessed they'd ranked Canada Dry at the top—but that's why it's done as a blind tasting. Even if they didn't know what it was while they were tasting, it could be that this familiar brand is what tasters expect tonic to taste like.
How Is It With Gin? Tasters noted that this tonic picked up the floral and junipery notes of the gin really well. "It's not kidding around," wrote one taster, "But it's aggressive in a way that I like." One taster noted that the sweetness was a little overwhelming in the G&T.
#2: Fentimans (6.2/10)
Fentiman's came in second: "It's citrusy, floral, and sweet in a friendly way," noted one taster, though another said it reminded them a little of cleaning fluid. Tasters praised the herbal notes of this tonic when tasted alone.
How Is It With Gin? Tasters found that this didn't make for a balanced gin and tonic: the Fentimans was too overpoweringly sweet and lemony when mixed with Tanqueray. Perhaps a different gin would work better?
#3: Seagram's (6/10)
Most tasters noted that this tonic was mild but balanced, though others wished for a little more bitterness. "Neutral" and "inoffensive on its own" were common comments.
How Is It With Gin? "This is a really solid gin and tonic," said one blind taster. Even though it was mild on its own, the tonic seemed to amplify the flavor of the gin.
#5: Stirrings (5.2/10)
Most of the bitterness in this tonic is on the finish; up front, it's sweet and lightly citrusy, reminiscent of lemon candy and mandarin oranges. The bubbles are super-fine and fizzy, which some tasters enjoyed. "Pleasant enough," summarized one taster.
How Is It With Gin? Tasters agreed that this made a decent G&T, but not an exciting one. "Lemon-limey and nice," noted one taster.
#4: Whole Food's 365 (5/10)
Fruity, but with oversize bubbles, this tonic was very citrusy but a bit oversweet. Most tasters agreed that it was more bland than many of the other brands.
How Is It With Gin? This tonic made a simple, refreshing gin and tonic. "It's on the fruitier side" noted one taster, "but it works well, bringing out the citrusy character of the drink."
#6: Schweppes (5/10)
This tonic lacked complexity, and many tasters found it too sweet. "It's citrusy in a Spritelike way," noted one taster, "but there's a weird off-flavor I can't place." Several tasters complained that this tonic was bland, but some found it refreshing.
How Is It With Gin? This tonic made for a pretty one-dimensional G&T.
#7: Fever Tree (4.6/10)
Though tasters praised this tonic's smooth texture and fine carbonation, the flavor wasn't a huge hit. "Medicinal and slightly clovey," noted one taster. Tasters found it too sweet and floral, with a hint of licorice that not everyone liked.
How Is It With Gin? This floral tonic made for an intense G&T: the aniselike notes pile on top of the gin to make a focused, herbal cocktail that only appealed to a few tasters. "You have to be in it for the herbs," said one taster.
#8: Q Tonic (4.5/10)
One taster picked this as his favorite: "good balance, plenty bitter," he declared. But others found it a little metallic and found the bracing bitterness overwhelming.
How Is It With Gin? "It's growing on me," said one taster, but others found this tonic too harsh with gin.
#9: Vintage (4.5/10)
We found this tonic a little astringent, and lacking the pleasant flavors found in the other brands. Some tasters criticized it for weak carbonation and only the slightest bitterness on the finish.
How Is It With Gin? "It works," noted one taster, but it made a decent, just-about-standard gin and tonic. "Nothing exciting or especially delicious here," said another taster.
#10: White Rock (4.2/10)
Tasters thought this tonic was sweet and bland, without enough bitterness. "It has an almost fake-cherry flavor. Yuck," wrote one taster.
How Is It With Gin? When mixed with Tanqueray, this made a delicately fruity and floral gin and tonic. Not the best, but we'd drink it for sure.
Which Is Your Favorite?
What tonic do you keep on hand for warm-weather gin and tonics? Have you tried these brands? What do you think?