Johan Höglund

Gin and Tonic – the drink with a less compelling history

Today, the International Gin & Tonic Day is celebrated – but how did the drink come into being? Johan Höglund, research director at the cutting-edge research centre Concurrences at Linnaeus University, talks about the history of a drink that saved – and reaped – lives in the wake of colonialism.

When European nations started exploring and colonising the tropical regions of our planet, they encountered a number of new diseases. Worst of all was malaria, which still today kills half a million people every year. European explorers and colonisers accidentally brought malaria with them from India and Africa to the Americas. However, in Peru, the indigenous people found a cure in the chinchona tree, the bark of which was already being used as remedy for other fever diseases. In the beginning of the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries brought the bark with them to Europe, and in the beginning of the 19th century, people had learnt how to isolate the active ingredient – quinine.

“The quinine worked best in liquid from, but had a very bitter taste. Therefore, British soldiers mixed the quinine with water, sugar, lime, and the gin ration that was part of their salary. That’s how the drink Gin and Tonic was born”, says Höglund.

A real Gin and Tonic still contains some quinine. The quinine saved many (European) lives but the demand was greater than the supply. The chinchona tree was a heavily controlled and heavily exploited asset, and the bark mainly mainly benefitted the colonisers. During the 19th century, the quinine made it possible for European nations to colonise parts of Africa and Asia where malaria was particularly common.

“Gin and Tonic became, next to modern weapons and imperialist ideologies, a tool for the colonial powers. This is something to keep in mind when you drink your Gin and Tonic. With a lot ice”, says Höglund.