Homemade Tonic Water

Do you ever take a moment to ponder which of your possessions you would never, ever, ever want to live without? Say you’re starting from scratch (with basic necessities for day-to-day functioning already taken care of), what are the first three items on your MUST BUY ASAP list? I have a pretty good idea of what mine would be:

#1. Sewing machine. I dealt with sewing machine separation anxiety when I went off to college; it wasn’t pretty. Luckily, my mom quickly tired of the marathon sewing sessions that would happen every time I came home to visit, and thoughtfully suggested that my aunt buy me one for my birthday.

#2. Awesome knives. One serrated; one large Santoku. My days of maiming fruits and veggies with steak knives (that may or may not have been “procured” from crappy chain restaurants) are far behind me, and it’s going to stay that way.

#3. SodaStream. Part of me feels like this spot should go to a camera, or maybe a bike, but who am I kidding? I need those bubbles. Still water bores me, and I pretty much have to be on the verge of dehydration before I actually think to drink a glass. And not only does my SodaStream keep my hydrated, but it also takes care of one of my least favorite things: flat beverages.

This was my first time making tonic syrup, and I was extremely pleased with the result. Not only does it save me from pouring half-full bottles of flat tonic down the drain, it is less sweet and far tastier. In perusing tonic water recipes online, one of the things that surprised me is that most call for cinchona bark powder. Filtering powders out of liquids can be annoyingly time-consuming, and is something I’d like to avoid if at all possible. Fortunately, cinchona bark is also available in “cut” form, although it is a bit harder to come by. I wound up purchasing a 16 oz. bag from Penn Herb Company. It’s a large amount, but it’s totally worth it if you’re a big tonic drinker. And I only wound up straining the mixture twice: once through a sieve to catch the big stuff, and once more through a coffee filter to remove the small particulates. Less filtering time = more drinking time!

Homemade Tonic Water
(adapted from Jeffrey Morgenthaler)

  • 4 cups of water
  • 1/4 cup of cut cinchona bark
  • 1 small lemongrass stalk
  • zest and juice of 1 orange
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • zest and juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tsp whole allspice berries
  • 1/4 cup of citric acid
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup of agave (or a little over 1 cup of granulated sugar)

Note: Avoid direct hand-to-bark contact as much as possible. Amidst all those large chunks are zillions of teeny tiny splinters. (Forming them into a pile with my bare hands was a big mistake!)

Combine all ingredients except the agave/sugar in a large, non-reactive saucepan. (If you do not use a non-reactive pan [i.e., stainless steel or ceramic], you will likely wind up with a pan damaged by the citric acid.) Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Remove from heat and let cool for a bit, then pour mixture through a sieve to remove the large pieces. Run remaining mixture through a coffee filter to remove the small particulates. (You may need to stir it a little bit to keep things from backing up.)

Once you’ve finished filtering, return the mixture to the stove and place over medium heat. Add agave/sugar, and stir until combined. Remove from heat and let cool, then transfer to a jar and store in the refrigerator. To make your tonic syrup last even longer, add an ounce of high-proof vodka.

To make a gin and tonic, combine 3/4 oz. syrup, 1 1/2 oz. gin, and 2 oz. of seltzer over ice. Serve and enjoy!

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m the founder/moderator for Punk Domestics (www.punkdomestics.com), a community site for those of use obsessed with, er, interested in DIY food. It’s sort of like Tastespotting, but specific to the niche. I’d love for you to submit this to the site. Good stuff!

  2. says

    What a great post! I’d often thought about making my own tonic water (like you mine tends to go flat before I drink it) so thank you for sharing this. I love your tip on using the bark shavings instead of powder. That seems so much easier than trying to strain out the powder.

    • says

      Thank you, Jennifer! I’ve been reading a lot about homemade bitters recently, and one of the things Brad Thomas Parsons noted in his book was that powder should be avoided at all costs as it’s such a pain to filter. I am so glad I had that knowledge to apply to this—there’s nothing worse than a gritty drink! :)

      • says

        I agree, there is nothing worse than a gritty drink.

        I’ve been doing some research since seeing your post and unfortunately it seems we can’t purchase cinchona bark here in Australia and I’ve read on a number of forums that the people who did try to import it had it destroyed by our customs officials. What a shame because I was really looking forward to trying this :( Looks like I’ll have to keep purchasing tonic water.

        Thanks for sharing the great recipe anyway. I’ve bookmarked it in case I do ever come across cinchona bark.

        • says

          Oh no! What a bummer. :(

          If you do happen to come across the powder (since it seems to be more commonly-found than the cut bark), I was thinking earlier that a good way to make tonic using powder but without all the filtering might be to place the powder inside a coffee filter, tie it closed securely, and then allow it to steep in the mixture, almost like tea. I’m not sure you’d get the same extraction that occurs when you add it straight to the liquid, but it would be an interesting experiment, at the very least!

  3. says

    Homemade tonic will elevate me to the ultimate mom category. I love anything homemade but this is something I have not tried before, excited to try…

  4. Cat says

    next time you use hendricks in your gin and tonics try it with cucumber instead of lime…its so refreshing and delicious. It’s one of my favorite drinks.

  5. says

    Hi Carey, you’re making me very thirsty looking at those shots! Some serious flavor in that drink, which is the perfect way to cut down on the sugar. I wish all the brand name soft drinks would follow that, but I guess corn syrup is cheap and flavors are expensive. Best to make your own drink at home, which I am going to do soon once I find cinchona bark.

    • says

      Thanks, Mark! It’s so nice to have control over all the ingredients, especially the sugar, which almost always seems to be too prevalent in store-bought drinks. (I developed an interest in homemade soda and mixers a few months ago, and it is quickly turning into an obsession.) Having a SodaStream makes it even more practical—it’s a purchase you won’t regret! :)

  6. says

    Having unearthed an ancient (80s) sodastream from my Mum’s house I’ve been wanting to make this recipe for a while now. Unfortunately cinchona bark is impossible to get hold of in the UK. Found 1 place that sells it but is out of stock! and apparently it can only be bought with a prescription. Still trying to find out who writes the prescriptions! Might see if I can get it sent from the US. This recipe looks like an essential and the perfect G & T is just too tempting.

    • says

      Darn it! It’s amazing what can and cannot be bought in different parts of the world. Another reader from Australia has the same problem. (She also mentioned that she’d read about a few people who ordered it from the states, only to have the package destroyed by customs.) But it might be worth a try!

        • says

          Carey, thanks for reminding me over on Alcademics to follow up with this comment.

          So the quinine extract used in most commercial tonic has zero character. It’s basically just one flat note: “bitter”. That means that DIY-ing tonic with other bittering agents should, if anything, add flavor to the end product. It might not have the *exact* same qualities as traditional tonic water, but I would bet it would still taste great with gin.

          With that being said, some other great bittering agents you can try that might be more available around the world include: Chinese bitter melon (ku gua), dried citrus pith (often marketed as “bitter orange), cacao nibs, and raw green coffee beans.

          and if you want to really geek out on it… check out http://bitterdb.agri.huji.ac.il/bitterdb/

          • says

            Thanks again, Kevin! I would love to try some other bittering agents in the next batch I make. (I’m especially curious about unroasted green beans!)

      • says

        I’m experimenting with quassia in my tonic. It works well, but quassia is much more bitter than cinchona. I cut the amount in half and it turned out great, but I think I’ll reduce it even more in subsequent batches. I posted the recipe .

    • says

      Hi Karen! If you were to use both sweeteners, you would only need a very teeny tiny amount of stevia. (From what I’ve read online, you only need 1 tsp of stevia in place of an entire cup of sugar.) You could try eliminating the agave altogether and just using 1 tsp of stevia, or even just start with half the amount of agave and adjust it as you see fit. (I’m not one for overly-sweet things, and I think this tonic would be fine if you cut the agave down to 1/2 a cup.) Either way, better to start with a little sweetener and add it as needed!

      • says

        I use vanilla stevia in my DIY tonic – 1/2 simple syrup + 2 drops of vanilla stevia. It ends up nice and refreshing. But I would keep at least half of the sugar in there – somehow it rounds out the flavors.

  7. Andrew says

    I made some tonic the other day using this recipe and I have the iSi screw top carbonating system. When adding the homemade seltzer to the tonic/gin/ice mixture, I find that it almost immediately goes flat. Has anyone run into this problem or have a solution? Thanks!

    • says

      Hi Andrew! The colder a liquid is and the less “agitation” it experiences, the longer it will hold its carbonation. Since you’re adding the seltzer to an iced drink, the temperature isn’t likely to be the issue. You could try adding the seltzer very slowly to avoid any fizzing, and also stir the drink gently and as little as possible. You could also try carbonating the water more than you usually would, since it will be diluted by the other non-fizzy ingredients. (I have a tendency to over-carbonate my seltzer as it is, so I haven’t run into this issue with my G&Ts.) Also (in case the idea comes up), I would advise against combining the syrup with the water and then carbonating the two. Apparently this will cause the entire mixture to fizz like crazy. Good luck!

    • Will says

      You cannot properly carbonate a liquid that has suspended solids. The solids act as a nucleation point, the disolved gas collects, the bubble floats to the top of the liquid column, and the gas escapes into the air. Try filtering your liquid better.

  8. says

    As an (ahem) avid drinker of G&Ts (oh, and Mount Gay rum and tonics too) I can’t wait to try this. Glad to see Andrew’s question and your answer about the iSi carbonation system, which is what I have, and I would have tried to add the syrup to the water and carbonate them together – so thank you for saving me from disaster!

  9. Kelley says

    Question! How much of the 16oz bag is the 1/4 c of bark used for this recipe? I’m thinking about making some of this as gifts and was wondering how much I could get out of one bag. Thanks!!

    • says

      Hi Kelley! It honestly felt like I didn’t even make a dent in the bag when I made the first batch of tonic. I just measured out what I have left, and it’s around 5 cups! So I’d say you’d be able to get around 20 quarts out of a 16 oz. bag. Tonic for all!

  10. Jen says

    I was very eager to try this recipe. I’m from Canada and you can’t buy cinchona bark here, so we went to tenzing momo in Seattle’s Pike Place market. They don’t carry the bark, only the powder form. At quite a price!
    I made this recipe to a T. It’s very citrusy and doesn’t have a very bitter taste like I would like. The overall recipe was o.k. I would change the amount of citric acid down to about 1/3cup and increase the cinchona bark to 2/3 cup.

    • says

      Hi Jen — I’m glad you were able to get a hold of some cinchona, even if it was in powdered form. I’ve made this recipe a few more times since, and I find myself tweaking a bit in the direction of your tastes with each. The citric acid can definitely be a bit overwhelming, so I’ve cut back on that a little. The last time, I accidentally let the mixture steep for about 40 minutes before I strained it, and it resulted in a very bitter tonic. I thought I’d ruined it at first, but after I added a little bit more agave and let it rest in the fridge for a day or two, it turned out to be some of the best I’ve had yet. If you’re looking to up the bitterness, I would suggest doing something similar.

    • chris says

      Jen, I know this is an older post but in case you revisit sometime (or for latecomers like myself) you can get cinchona bark in Canada. Herbie’s Herbs on queen street west in Toronto has bags of cut bark on the shelf. They may also mail order depending on where you are located. Now the only thing left is for me to decide which recipe to try.

  11. says

    Please consider changing the recipe so the citric acid is added after simmering and not in the pot. 18/10 steel is reactive and it ruined one of my pots.

    • says

      Thank you for bringing that issue to my attention, Rick. I’ve amended to recipe to note that a non-reactive pot should be used, as I’m not sure how well the citric acid would dissolve in the cooled mixture, and then whole thing makes another trip back to the pan again when you add the sweetener.

      • says

        We tried your recipe and this one {http://craftcocktailsathome.com/2012/07/simple-homemade-tonic-water-commercial-brands-compared/}. Didn’t have any trouble dissolving the citric acid and sugar in tupperware.

        • says

          Ooo! Glad to see Kevin has a site to promote his upcoming book! I’m also curious about the simpler tonic recipes. (There’s been one similar to this that I’d found when I first went in search of recipes for homemade tonic, and I’d been interested in testing it out, as I like the idea of a less fancier version.) Glad to hear dissolving the citric acid and sugar worked out just fine.

  12. Jillian says

    Thanks so much for posting this recipe. I love your photos and I absolutely love gin and tonics so I’m eager to gather all these ingredients and create my own tonic! THANK YOU!!!!

  13. Bob Bingledorf says

    How about hops as a bittering substitute>
    They are available everwhere.
    Just need to boil for a longer time (30 mins +) to extract bitterness.

    • says

      The hops would definitely do a good job of bittering, although I imagine the end results could be quite different, flavor-wise. Cinchona has a somewhat mellow, woodsy bitterness, while hops have a bright, intense citrusy bitterness. If you do give it a try, definitely let me know how it turns out!

  14. Sergio Caplan says

    So, has anyone checked into any FDA regs? I ask because I’ve made my own tonic and love it. But before I serve it others…I so want to make sure there’s no violations.

    I can’t even find a site that will tell me if there’s more or less quinnine in the homemade version than in store bought.

    Any answers or links would be great…

    Thanks

    • says

      Hi Sergio. That’s a good question, and I’m not entirely sure of the answer. I’ve seen a number of specialty small batch tonics popping up on shelves lately, not to mention a few bars that make their own as well, so I imagine the regulations aren’t too stringent. A friend of mine is actually in the process of developing Peruvian chicha to bottle and sell, and he is going through Cornell’s Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship for testing/analysis of his product. It seems like a helpful resource that might be worth looking into.

  15. virginia says

    Any suggestions for a substitution ratio of cut bark for powder? I’ve collected several recipes that call for powder, would prefer to use the whole bark, but am not sure of how much whole bark is equivalent to a tablespoon of powder.

    • says

      Hi Virginia — When I made this based on Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s recipe, he called for 1/4 cup of the powdered bark, and I substituted 1/4 cup of the cut bark. Having said that, it would make more sense that you’d want to use more of the cut stuff to equal the bitterness imparted from the powder (and I’ve remade this recipe a little bit more bitter, and it was quite good). I’d try subbing double the cut for the powder, and see how that works.

  16. lottieparker@rocketmail.com says

    I have tried making my own tonic water three times…..not sure if I liked it or not but all 3 times I experienced heart palpations in the middle of the night. I can’t figure out if its the bark or lemon grass but I definitely had side effects I didn’t like.

    • says

      Yikes! I did some googling and I think that it is probably related to the bark, as I found a few things online that note heart palpitations as a side effect that sometimes occurs from ingesting quinine. I’ve heard a little bit of talk about making tonic with bittering agents other than cinchona bark (like gentian or quassia), but I haven’t tried them out myself. It might be worth looking into!

    • says

      Oooo, that’s a good question! I haven’t tried it out myself, but it should, since the quinine in the bark is the stuff that makes it glow. I’m not sure if the clarity of the homemade tonic would impede the glowing, however. Now I want to find out.

  17. Emily says

    I’m looking at your recipe and Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s recipe and he says to use 3/4 c. Agave syrup to each cup of simmered/strained liquid, whereas you add 3/4 cup to the whole recipe. Did you do that because of using the cut bark instead of powder? Other recipes I find use more sugar to water also.

    • says

      Now THAT is a good question. It has been a while since this post, but I’m thinking the 3/4 for the whole batch was an oversight on my part when I made the recipe. I do, however, tend to prefer a less sweet, more bitter tonic, so 3/4 of a cup might have tasted right to me. I suppose it’s one of those things where you can sweeten to suit your tastes. :)

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