The gin and tonic is one of Britain's favourite drinks and also one of the most simple. Just four ingredients (Sipsmith gin, tonic, ice and garnish) make for sipping perfection.

You might be surprised to learn, then, that the gin and tonic has a long and complex history, filled with intrigue, that belies its simple combination.

Gin was claimed by many to have been invented in the 16th century in Leiden, Holland by Dr. Sylvius de Bouve, and was originally prescribed as medical treatment, thought to aid circulation. It gradually made its way to the UK, where, due in part to its low cost, it became the drink of choice. By 1750 over 11 million gallons were being consumed by Londoners annually. Eventually, a series of laws curbed the spirit’s ubiquity, and by the mid-19th century gin came to be considered a gentleman’s drink.

In 1857 the British Crown took over the governance of India, and more Brits began to make their way to the Indian subcontinent and other warm-weather climes. However, early immigrants struggled with the ravages of malaria in the tropical climate (not to mention scurvy during the long sea journeys). What serendipitous cure was able to ward off both of those illnesses? The gin and tonic.

Back in the day, tonic water was infused heavily with quinine, an extract from the South American cinchona tree. Known among the indigenous population as the “fever tree” because its bark was able to stop chills, cinchona bark was first brought to Europe in the 1640s when it was shown to cure and prevent malaria. Tonic water thus became an essential part of Britain’s colonialism, though its taste in those days was bitter and harsh. Brits soon found that the addition of gin, sugar, ice, and citrus was the perfect way to temper the bitterness and make the cure palatable. And as a bonus, the inclusion of limes prevented scurvy.

These days tonic water is much tastier, with smaller doses of quinine and more sweetening agents, but the gin and tonic is no less popular. Though we may quibble over the finer details (how much ice to use, lemon versus lime versus cucumber, proper ratios), we can all agree: the timeless gin and tonic really does cure all ills. Except hangovers, that is.

Feature images © nito, AJP, 2013. Used under license from Shutterstock.com.

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