The Tonic that kept the British Empire Going

You have seen it make it an appearance on any given episode of Mad Men, you may have ordered one from a fedora-and-suspenders wearing, facial-handlebar-touting bartender in any of the dated speakeasies cropping up all over the country. But today, we help you get that extra bit of credibility, when ordering your next Bombay Sapphire double.

The British introduced Gin and Tonic in India mainly for the soldiers fighting for the Company.

A simple serve at socialite soirées today, the Gin and Tonic actually has a complex history, involving a debilitating sickness and the Raj. Yes, there is always the Raj, right?
The British introduced it in India mainly for the soldiers fighting for the British East India Company. You could say that the Gin and Tonic was first 'mixed' in India!

How you ask? Read on.

Dr. Franciscus de la Boie
Dr. Franciscus de la Boie|Wikimedia Commons

The present-day gin has its its origins in the Dutch drink genever, a malt-wine based spirit 'invented' around 1650 in Holland by Dr. Franciscus de la Boie, also known as Dr. Sylvius. While not the inventor per se, he created the first Genever recipe, adding juniper oil to the grain spirit, made of barley, wheat and rye. Genever itself was derived from the 'jenever' spirit, known to have existed as a medicinal drink in Holland since the 1500s, when juniper was revered as an all-curing miracle plant.

The Dutch soldiers passed on this wonder drink to their English allies during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), giving rise to the moniker 'Dutch Courage.' The English attempted to replicate the recipe back home, but did not have the know-how. They ended up creating their own watered-down version of genever, which evolved and was anglicized into the now quintessentially English drink 'gin.'

Early British Officers in India
Early British Officers in India|Wikimedia Commons

Quinine and the Queen's soldiers..

Britain largely founded the Empire on the strength of its guns. The English used their ammunition to subdue large parts of the world that were still fighting with the sword. However, disease turned out to be the great equalizer, affecting the colonizer and its subjects in equal measure.

While it began to be eradicated in 19th century Europe, the mosquito-borne disease was a substantial threat in the tropics. So, as the Raj established its foothold in the Indian subcontinent, it had to contend with a disease which was claiming the lives of its officials and civilians alike.

As the Raj established its foothold in the Indian subcontinent, it had to contend with a disease which was claiming the lives of its officials and civilians alike.

In the 17th century, the Spanish Jesuit missionaries in Peru discovered that the locals used a special kind of bark to treat their common “fevers.” Taken from the cinchona tree, the bark was proving effective against malaria. The “Jesuit’s bark,” as it came to be known, quickly became a favored treatment method across Europe. Eventually, they realized that the bark could be used not only as an effective method of treatment, but of prevention as well.

The cinchona bark's active ingredient, quinine powder, proved a potent medicine. It also proved a potent political tool in Britain's colonizing ambitions.

Peruvian bark plantation in India 1864
Peruvian bark plantation in India 1864|Wikimedia Commons

Quinine powder quickly became the cure-all for the colonialists. By the 1840s, they were using 700 tons imported from Peru in their fight against malaria. Ensuring the good health of the troops, while allowing the officers of the Raj to survive in low-lying tropical areas, it had also allowed the early-settled British traders in India to prosper. And we all know what happened next.

In her widely acclaimed and highly detailed book “Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens”, author Lucile Brockway argues that control of Cinchona – and thus quinine – was key to the expansion of European colonial powers during the nineteenth Century in Asia and Africa.

Quinine was key to the expansion of European colonial powers during the 19th century in Asia and Africa.

Peru, realizing the value of the cinchona seeds, clamped down on exports. This let to both the British and the Dutch turned to smuggling them out of South America. In the race to colonize, key resources always take centre-stage. Quinine therefore, was not only a resource but the very drug that fueled this race.

As Brockway comments in her description of the use of quinine rations in the Bengal region of India – the uses were clear and the reasons well-known, “production was directed toward the British Establishment, both military and civilian, enabling the British officer and his Indian soldiers to resist Malaria and stay in fighting trim.”This was true to any other colony and troops stationed in Malaria-prone areas.

Erasmus Bond Tonic Water
Erasmus Bond Tonic Water|Flickr Creative Commons

As Churchill would muse later, it kept the British servicemen, and the Empire at large, alive.

Quinine was a bit bitter to the palate, though. In the quest to keep it down without a fight, the officers took to mixing the powder with soda and sugar. The tonic water was born!

London-based businessman Erasmus Bond first introduced the first commercial tonic water in 1858.

London-based businessman Erasmus Bond first introduced the first commercial tonic water in 1858, coinciding with the British taking direct control of India. Schweppes, the Swiss beverage brand, soon followed in 1870, with the “Indian Quinine Tonic,” a product specifically catering to the British members-only clubs in India, along with the Company officers required to take their daily dose. It would only be a matter of time before an officer spiced up his daily dose of quinine, with a pint of gin.

The Gin and Tonic was born and lived on, as the Empire faded away.

So as you call for your next one, you might just remember where it came from!


One of the most famous gin brands in the world, Bombay Sapphire, is named after the Star of Bombay,  a 182-carat sapphire originating from Sri Lanka, currently on display at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.


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