Gin and Malaria

Gin and tonic is nearly as simple as a cocktail gets.  Put ice in a glass.  Add gin and tonic water, to taste.  Optionally, garnish with a lime or lemon wedge. The simplicity of its recipe suggests that it was inevitable, as if someone accidentally mixed two ingredients only to find that they complemented each other so nicely — and then, that happy accident caught on.  Not so the case with gin and tonic: it’s a byproduct of malaria.

Yes, malaria.  But for the disease, gin and tonic may have never been invented.

Centuries ago, the Quechua people of Peru discovered that the bark of the cinchona tree native to the area had medicinal effects — specifically, it reduced shivering caused by low temperatures.  Over time, this caught the attention of Westerners living in the area, and of specific note, of a Jesuit apothecary named Agostino Salumbrino.  Salumbrino used the bark to treat malaria-induced shivers and discovered that the cinchona bark did more than relieve the chills — it also was effective as a prophylactic against malaria itself.  That anti-malarial chemical compound is now known as quinine.

Quinine’s downside is its taste.  It is very bitter and, therefore, hard to ingest in and of itself.  So the Quechuas and, later, Europeans, blended it with sweetened water, giving us what we now call tonic water, such as the product pictured above.  This helped, but in many cases, was not enough.  In the 18th century, in British-controlled India, colonials further mixed tonic water — with gin.  The two tastes complemented each other well enough to not only make drinking the anti-malarial sufferable, but also to give tonic water a market long after more effective medicines were developed.

Today, quinine is regulated in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration, and is allowed for non-medicinal purposes, such as in tonic water, in limited amounts.

Bonus fact: Quinine causes tonic water to fluoresce under ultraviolet light, as seen here.

From the Archives: Aspirin (TM): The history of aspirin — or, at least, it’s trademark.

Related reading: “The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years,” four stars on 14 mostly positive reviews.  $15.46, $12.99 for the Kindle version.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.