Do You Know Where Your New Years Eve Cocktail Comes From?

This article originally appeared in National Geographic Assignment.

After a long workweek a business colleague and I decided to salve away our ills with a few cocktails. She ordered some sugary newfangled confection and I, being seasonally nostalgic, opted for the hot weather classic, a gin and tonic. Once prepared and sipped upon she leaned forward slightly.

“I have a confession to make,” she said as she whisked a stray hair from in front of her eyes. “I don’t like gin and tonics,” she said. “They taste so…so…medicinal,” she added while twirling that self-same errant hair.

“Well there’s a good reason for that,” I said, taking a long sip. I then began to tell her why.

The problem with the origins of classic cocktails is that often those cocktails were developed by people who didn’t keep very good records. Evidenced by the fact that classics like the manhattan and the daiquiri have several different origin stories. In fact even the origins of the primary spirits in those drinks are a little murky. The gin and tonic is different. It’s constituent ingredients are very well documented. Primarily because both gin, and tonic, were invented by medical professionals; and they usually keep quite good records.

Gin, or more accurately “jenever” (which means juniper in Dutch), was developed at the University of Leiden in Holland in 1650 by the physician Franciscus de la Boe (Dr. Sylvius). A pioneer in circulatory medicine, he was looking for a way to deliver the purported circulatory benefits of juniper berries to his patients. After trying several different concoctions, he combined juniper with several other botanicals, suspended them all in a clear distillate and presented it to the world. Soon enough it’s medicinal benefits were overlooked by its more deleterious effects.

At that point in the 17th century the Protestant Dutch Republic (comprised of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) had successfully seceded from the Catholic Spanish Empire. England too had become legally Protestant in the last century and in the ever complicated Catholic-Protestant struggle for Europe the Dutch and the English became allies. And as allies sometimes do, they soon shared their victuals, one of which just happened to be jenever. The English called the fortifying spirit “Dutch courage” and taking the Flemish word for it (genever) began producing their own version, shortening the word for it to “gen” and later to “gin”.

England and Scotland soon merged to become Great Britain and eventually these new “British” created three different styles of gin. A sweetened version called Old Tom, and two “drier” styles; London Dry and Plymouth. It would be these three styles that the British would take with them on their quest to become the world’s pre-eminent super power.

Around the same time that de la Boe was working in Holland, Spanish settlers in the New World discovered that the indigenous people there used the bark of the Cinchona tree to treat fevers. The Jesuits brought that bark back to treat Europeans suffering from the plague. All were not believers, however. One story holds that when he was offered Jesuit’s Bark on his deathbed in 1658, Lord Protector of England and Scotland, Oliver Cromwell, refused it because of its Roman Catholic ties.

My friend continued to twirl her hair, and continued to lean forward, which caused me to clear my throat slightly before I continued the tale.

By 1736 the Brits felt differently. When Dr. George Cleghorn, surgeon to the 22nd Regiment of Foot, Royal Army, arrived on the island of Minorca to research Mediterranean diseases, he discovered that the fever reducing properties of Jesuit’s Bark greatly aided in the treatment of malaria. Although the root cause for malaria (mosquitoes) would not be known for some time, Dr. Cleghorn’s medicinal quinine “tonic” followed the Royal Army wherever they went. And in the following centuries they went everywhere.

Meanwhile, in 1794 German born chemist Johann Jacob Schweppe had begun manufacturing soda water for medicinal purposes in his shop in Bristol, England. There he combined the anti-malarial “tonic water” with sweetener and carbonation, effectively creating the world’s first modern “soft drink”.

The final piece of the puzzle came late in the 18th century when the British began their conquest of India, first with the East India Company, and later with the Royal Army. With them went British gin and British tonic water. Along the way, the lime also entered the equation. Back in 1747 Royal Army surgeon James Lind had discovered that a deficiency in Vitamin C was responsible for the dreaded mariner’s disease, scurvy. As a result of his research, limes, rich in Vitamin C, became mandatory on British warships leading to that far reaching derogatory epithet “limeys”.

It was there on the Indian subcontinent the three medicines would combine, perhaps inevitably, into the distinctive hot weather drink known as the gin and tonic. Gin for courage, tonic for malaria, and lime for scurvy, Summers would never be the same again.

My colleague looked at me quizzically.

“Well I guess I’ll just have to give them another try,” she said, looking at me now very closely. “You know,” she said pausing and twisting that hair again. “Just for medicinal purposes.”

After which I had a few thoughts.

  1. Genever is still made in many Dutch speaking European countries.
  2. The quinine in tonic water will fluoresce under ultraviolet light (including direct sunlight) which often makes gin and tonics look sort of blueish. That blue color is definitely not a result of using Blue Sapphire gin, which only comes in a blue bottle but itself is actually clear.
  3. Limes actually contain half the amount of Vitamin C that lemons do.
  4. I think my business colleague might have been flirting with me.