A Tonic for What Ails Ye

I’m a sucker for a great classic cocktail — and by great, I mean a drink made with few ingredients, where you can taste the high-quality spirit the beverage is built around. A perfect margarita, for example — lime, agave syrup, good tequila.

A lady gets her close up

A lady gets her close up

I used to think the rechristening of bartenders as “mixologists” was a bit silly. (What would be next — busboys would now be “dishware reutilization engineers”!??) But then on one of our rare evening adventures into civilization without the kids, our pal Alex took us to an establishment in Culver City called Oldfield’s Liquor Room that he liked to frequent with his mistress. The bartender, who was also apparently the proprietor, was a buxom woman in pointy glasses and an old timey baby doll dress. The mercifully manageable bar menu contained a dozen or so “house drinks” based on classics and made with house-infused syrups and bitters. Those we tried were delicious, and I thought, “Okay, she’s more like a chef — and maybe they do deserve something more elevated than ‘bartender'”.

Our friend Emma who lives nearby in the canyon has made a reputation for herself serving gin and tonics. I’d never been a huge fan — I had the proverbial bad youthful experience on gin (everyone has their experience, and the related liquor it ruined them on for life), and beyond getting over that, I simply found the drink dull. But Emma’s was different — she had found an artisanal tonic water in tiny bottles that she paid a fortune for, and was using Hendrick’s gin. The first time she made me one, I slurped it down — and asked for another.

Not long after, I received an issue of Saveur magazine with an article on the origins of the gin and tonic. It began with the 19th-century discovery that a Peruvian tree bark called cinchona was effective in treating malaria. The active ingredient in the bark was a bitter-tasting alkaloid called quinine. The bark somehow made its way to India in a tonic form, where British officers began stirring it into their gin. And the rest, as they say, is history.

007_Parkers_Tonic_1882 copy

The article had several different recipes for tonics, including versions incorporating pickle juice, celery salt, chiles, pink peppercorns and other non-traditional influences. Perhaps this could be the less-expensive alternative to recreating Emma’s triumphant cocktail! Plus, I’m a sitting duck for anything that evokes arcane kitchen traditions, involves exotic shopping adventure and to which lends itself to my adding my own creative stamp.

The critical building blocks of all of them were cinchona bark and citric acid, followed by a variety of strange seeds, leaves, roots and grains. I began visiting local health food stores and Indian and Persian markets looking for the obscure ingredients suggested, but succeeded only in finding basic stuff like the citric acid, lemongrass and kafir lime leaves. I would find anything and everything else I could or would need, of course, online.

For my own version of tonic, beyond the requisite cinchona and citric acid, I included orris root, juniper berries and grains of paradise — three flavors often used in gin — plus the gorgeous Eastern complexity of star anise and lemongrass, some lime zest for added bitterness and a little knub of ginger. After a few experimentations, I scaled back settled into the simplified version you will find below.


My pal Dan in Asheville was so enamored of the drink on a recent stay at our house, that he ordered up the roots and grains himself and began serving it to his North Carolina friends — where the drink, cleverly rechristened in my honor by Dan the “Col-gin & tonic,” is apparently developing a cult-like following.

You can order the roots and grains online from the Penn Herb Co. Ltd. Following is the recipe for my particular tonic, as well as one for the “Col-gin & tonic”.  I think you’ll find it’s certain to cure what ails ye.


*    *    *

Tonic syrup
makes about 2 cups

2 cups water
1 cup white sugar
2 tbsp. citric acid
2 tbsp. cinchona bark, powdered or cut
1 tbsp. orris root powder
1 tbsp. grains of paradise
1 tsp. allspice
3 star anise pods
zest 1 lime

Bring the water and sugar to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in remaining ingredients and slowly simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, until slightly reduced.

Remove from heat and let cool. Strain into a glass container and place in fridge until ready to use. Keeps for up to a month.

*    *    *

Col-gin & Tonic
makes one drink

2 oz. gin
4 oz. sparkling water
1 oz. tonic syrup
1 lime wedge

Fill a highball-style glass with ice to taste. Pour in gin, followed by sparkling water. Then add tonic water and stir lightly. Squeeze with a lime wedge and serve.

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andrea Cleall
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 04:00:21

    I will request one of these when I visit next. Being the offspring of a British know it all I am suspicious because it wanders off from the norm, not something to be taken lightly, but since I love gin and tonic and think martinis made with vodka are an aberration I will open my aging mind if only for the first sip.


  2. Jessamine in PDX
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 06:47:11

    I love a gin and tonic and I love a good DIY project. This looks right up my alley!


  3. Leo
    Aug 29, 2014 @ 04:30:10

    This sounds delicious, but I think what it requires is the official approval of one of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects. As someone who is both a loyal subject, a devoted friend and a recent alumnus of Topanga, I feel I am uniquely qualified to give this a British stamp of approval. I am available for tastings 24/7.


  4. pal-O
    Sep 05, 2014 @ 02:01:39

    Going to be seeing Dan soon enough (probably 2X this Autumn) and am going to inquire about some Col-gin & Tonic!


    • scolgin
      Sep 05, 2014 @ 04:34:10

      I hope you’ll try both the Asheville version and the Original before making your final assessment.


      • pal-O
        Sep 05, 2014 @ 19:36:14

        I am nothing if not balanced. Only two things in this world would please me more and that is being in a room with my two best & favorite friends and giving both versions a taste test. I’m a big fan of the Gin & Tonic!! Maybe I’ll be trying one of yours pretty soon also . . . it is such a funny little world the way things go & one never knows when surprises might happen!

      • scolgin
        Sep 05, 2014 @ 19:37:17

        Hurray to surprises.

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