My company threw a holiday party a few weeks ago and since there was an open bar of sorts, I decided to order a gin and tonic. Wayne asked me what tonic water was, and I was ashamed? embarrassed? to not be able to provide the answer. What’s tonic water? What’s seltzer water?
I scrounged my brain for an appropriate factoid. “Uh, once I saw an episode of House which said something about how quinine was in tonic water?” Not the stroke of brilliance I was looking for.
“Quinine? Does that have to do with malaria?”
I don’t know! It’s sad.
I’ll make amends now!
Tonic water basically consists of four ingredients: carbonated water, a sweetener, citric acid, and quinine. The alkaloid quinine is the substance that causes bitterness. [Hmm, that's a good one. Instead of telling someone that he/she is so bitter, you can say, "You're so quinine."] Quinine was added to the water as a therapeutic/preventative measure, and those clever Brits came up with the delightful gin and tonic to make the medicine go down, Mary Poppins-style.
Quinine is isolated from the bark of the cinchona tree, native to the Andes mountains. Trees in the genus Cinchona were taken to other parts of the world, notably India and Indonesia, and flourished. There are colorful stories about the historical use of cinchona bark extract involving countesses and Jesuits. Quinine works by blocking the actions of the enzyme heme polymerase which results in a build-up of toxic heme within the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, nicely killing those buggers.
It would not be advised to swill gin and tonics to self-medicate for malaria, as you would be consuming roughly 100 drinks a day. The amount of quinine in commercially available tonic water is minimal: 20 mg per 6 fluid ounces, and the prescribed dosage of quinine is 600 mg per day.
Seltzer water is just carbonated water. What a letdown; I thought it would be more exciting than that.
And then people at the party all ordered gin and tonics and I felt like a trendsetter.