12th April 2022

The Gin-ius Behind The Tonic

Cinchona bark - the source of quinine in tonic water

Some Cinchona bark, yesterday.

Raise a Gin & Tonic in honour of French pharmacist Pierre-Joseph Pelletier – the first man to successfully extract quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree.

Thus saving the world from Malaria.

Pelletier, often seen in a white coat peering at a conical flask, was the man who successfully extracted quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree – thus saving the world from Malaria. Sort of.

Used in hundreds of tonics, aromatised wines, bitters and spirits, quinine has played a huge role in cocktail history and was key in Colonial expansion during the 19th century.  Without Quinine, European expansion into Africa, Asia and the tropics would have been almost impossible.

The French drank Absinthe in Algeria whilst fighting both men and mosquitoes* in Algeria and those serving in British colonial India sipped gin and quinine-heavy tonics. Winston Churchill famously declared that the humble Gin & Tonic saved “more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

However, what Winston failed to mention is that you’d have to drink 300 gin and tonics a day to ward off Malaria. Which would give you the squits. And kill you. But at least you wouldn’t have malaria.

Today, quinine can be found in numerous tonic waters, bitters, herbal liqueurs, vermouth and quinquinas – such as Cocchi Americano, Lillet Blanc, Dubonnet Rouge Aperitif and Byrrh Grand Quinquina.

*Mosquitos are little bell-ends. But here’s a miscellany of mosquito facts with which to regale friends and strangers alike:

  • Mosquitos have 47 teeth and are the world’s deadliest animal, spreading fatal diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, Zika and yellow fever.
  • they are responsible for killing more than half the people that have ever lived and rack up an average annual global body count of one million.
  • The women are the worst, as they’re the only ones who bite;
  • also watch out for the silent ones  – you can’t get malaria from a mosquito that buzzes.
  • Mosquitos have a special organ, the maxillary palp, to detect CO2 released from human breath and then, once located, and given the choice, they’ll always bite the ankle.
  • They often drink three times their own body weight in blood.
  • They also like to bite people who have just eaten bananas.

So why don’t we just kill them all? Well, apparently that would be a bad move because they’re prime pollinators and the ecosystem would collapse like a clown car.

Don’t feel guilty if you do splat one against a wall with a newspaper though – as, with an average lifespan of just two months, it wasn’t going to live much longer anyway.

And, like we say, they’re bell-ends.


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