Friday Random Recipe: Homemade Tonic Water

This is an interesting recipe, in a very unusual vein for me.
Homemade tonic water.

I hate tonic water. I really despise the stuff. But like a lot of
people, I have some strange twitchy muscle ticks, in my legs and my
eyelids. A few years ago, I was talking to my opthamologist about the
eyelid twitch thing, and he said that while there was a prescription
drug that he could give me for it, he’d found that most people got
more relief from just drinking tonic water. The quinine that gives it
its distinctive bitter taste works better than the prescription. So I
gave it a try. It didn’t actually do a whole lot for my eyelid thing,
but it did wonders for my twitchy legs at bedtime. So ever since, I’ve
forced myself to drink the stuff.

Then a few weeks ago, I saw a link to a recipe for homemade tonic
. I decided to give it a try. I couldn’t get exactly the
ingredients that were suggested, so I add libbed a bit. The end result
was fantastic. It’s got a strong bitter quinine bite, but
it’s also got a wonderful flavor in addition to the quinine. This
variation is particularly good mixed with a nice white rum or cachaca.
If you leave out the cardamom, it’s great with bourbon. (I know gin is
the traditional addition, but I just don’t like the taste of gin.)

With this, for the first time, I can easily imagine drinking
tonic water even if it didn’t have any useful medicinal qualities.

Here’s my recipe.


  • 1/8 cup powdered chinchona bark.
  • Zest and juice of one orange.
  • Zest and juice of one lemon.
  • Zest and juice of one lime.
  • 1/2 tsp allspice berries.
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom pods.
  • 2 cups water.
  • Pinch salt.
  • Agave syrup; about 1 1/2 cups.
  • Seltzer water.


  1. Put the water in a pot on high heat. Add all of fruit and
  2. When it comes to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let it cook
    for about 20 minutes.
  3. Let it cool. Strain it through a paper coffee filter. (This
    takes a long time, but if you don’t use the paper filter, a lot of
    the chinchona powder will stay in, and you don’t want to get a
    mouthful of it; it’s incredibly bitter.)
  4. Add water to bring the volume back up to two cups.

You’ve now got the basic concentrate for tonic water. You can
either mix the agave in now, or you can do it when you make a glass
of tonic. It’s less work to just add the syrup now, but the
concentrate will keep longer if you don’t. I don’t mix them.

To make the tonic, mix together two tablespoons of concentrate
(more if you like it extra bitter), and about 1 1/2 tablespoons of
agave syrup. Then add one cup of seltzer water.

You can use a basic sugar syrup instead of the agave; the standard
bar mix simple syrup substitutes with roughly the same quantity. But I
think that the agave is better. Agave has a slighly different
mouthfeel than cane sugar, and I think that it sweetens and smooths
out the tonic without cutting too much of the bitterness. Cane sugar
to me either doesn’t taste sweet enough, or kills the edge of the

To make a killer rum&tonic, take a nice light rum or cachaca
(Cachaca is a brazilian liquor made from sugar cane juice, rather than
from molasses; it tastes like a mild rum with a bit of grassiness),
and mix it, 1 part rum to 3 parts tonic, and serve over ice.

The one problem with this recipe is that Chinchona bark is kind
of hard to find. The most common source of it is flaky herbal medicine
stores. But some of the really large online spice shops have it. I
bought a bunch from a place called “Tenzing Momo”. They definitely
qualify as “flaky herbal medicine store”, but they also carry a really
good selection of cooking herbs and spices. Chinchona is sold by the
ounce; one ounce is about 1/4 cup.

0 thoughts on “Friday Random Recipe: Homemade Tonic Water

  1. Jeffrey Morgenthaler

    Cool, Mark! I’m glad you liked the recipe, even (or especially) with your distaste for tonic water.
    It’s a shame you couldn’t find lemongrass, however. It really does lend a nice depth to food and drink, and has a way of carrying citrus flavors further down the palate without any additional sour or bitter notes.
    I’m lucky enough that my neighborhood grocery store carries lemongrass, but if you’re ever interested in trying it, it’s usually readily available at any Asian market.

  2. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Normally, getting lemongrass wouldn’t be a problem; there are half a dozen asian groceries nearby my home that can be counted on to have it. But I didn’t have time to get to one to buy the lemongrass when I made my first batch. So I add libbed; increased the citrus a bit, and added the cardamom (which I thought would go nicely with the allspice) – and it turned out so well, I just figured why mess with success?

  3. Jeffrey Morgenthaler

    But, Mark, messing with success is the fun part!
    Seriously, though, the cardamom is a great call, I’ve made quite a few batches with it myself. I also like to experiment with cloves and cinnamon in the winter.

  4. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Well, since I’m the only one drinking it, it’s not like I’ve gotten to make more than one batch so far :-).
    And yeah, the cardamom was a really good move on my part. I just generally love the flavor of cardamom, so it’s something that I frequently think of in anything that uses sweet spices. But it’s really particularly good in the tonic; it blends perfectly with the bitterness of the chincona.

  5. alextangent

    OK, you lost me. You don’t like tonic? So what do you put in your gin?
    Add ice and a slice, and your dislike of tonic will just melt away…

  6. alextangent

    Woah!! I just read it again (cool recipe btw) — you don’t like gin either?!?!?!
    O my. You’re a lost cause.

  7. mike

    I’ll definitely have to try this. Tonic water from the store is pretty boring.
    What’s wrong with gin? πŸ˜‰

  8. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    mike, alex:
    I don’t know why… Gin just does nothing for me. I like most liquors – good vodkas, tequilas, rums, burboun, rye, grappa, brandy, and various eau de vies… I don’t dislike Gin, but given a choice between gin and any of the other liquors, I’ll usually take the other.

  9. andrea

    Unless you’ve been out hiking through the brush, you have muscle TICS. (I’ve had ticks, and prefer having tics to ticks any day.)
    Have to agree with you on gin, gack. Not fond of bourbon either; tastes like wet cat smells.
    Hadn’t heard of tonic water; my doc prescribed a small dose of something that’s really an antihypertensive, and it works okay. How much tonic water do you sip at bedtime to suppress those tics?

  10. Jonathan Vos Post

    Sometimes I just have Tonic Water on the rocks. Sometimes with Gin. Sometimes with Lemon. Sometimes with Lime. Sometimes a squeeze from my oranges (I have two productive trees in my gardens). I also like Campari & Tonic, with a twist of lime. I ordered this once at a Con, and Jerry Pournelle said: bitter tonic with a bitter liqueur? Why don’t you just drink wormwood?

  11. Mikael Vejdemo Johansson

    alex: Gin was the first liquor I took a liking to once I started drinking alcohol. However, I -really- don’t like tonic water. Really really REALLY don’t like tonic water.
    Thus, I don’t drink G&Ts. I do, however, like a good gin, on the rocks, with a twist of lime.

  12. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Drinking the tonic at bedtime doesn’t give it enough time. I’ve found that it seems to work best if I have a glass around 2 hours before bed.
    I use a largish highball glass – I’d guess it’s around 6oz.
    For a while, I actually suspected that it was the alchohol that helped, but a equally strong drink before bed doesn’t help, and tonic without alchohol does.
    I actually mentioned the tonic thing to my internist, who said quinine is known to be good for this; in fact, some of the earlier prescriptions for restless leg was quinine.

  13. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    You should really try making a batch of this recipe. This stuff converted me from a tonic water hater to a tonic water fan overnight.
    I’ve been drinking tonic when my muscle twitches act up for around 10 years, and absolutely *hating* the stuff the whole time.
    Now I’m terribly unhappy that I forgot to buy more seltzer, and couldn’t have a glass last night!
    Commercial tonic water is awful stuff. Pure quinine is intensely bitter, and commercial tonic is just seltzer, sugar, and quinine. In the homemade, the chincona, which contains the quinine, has an interesting and complex flavor, and combined with the citrus and the cardamom and allspice, it’s *really* terrific stuff. Not at *all* what you’d expect from drinking the bottled stuff.

  14. wk

    So, once made, how do you store it? Refrigerated? Just in a pitcher (room temperature)? And how long does it stay good for?

  15. Joe Kiniry

    Mark et al.,
    All gins are not created alike. I suggest that you should try two or three gins with very distinctive tastes before you discount this lovely liquor.
    When I have done gin tastings (!) in the past I have included, e.g., several commonly available gins including Bombay Sapphire, Tanquery, Gordon’s, Beefeater, and Hendrick’s. Each of these gins has a very distinctive flavor—unsurprising given the nature of this liquor and how it is made.
    My favorite gin, classic Bols (exported to the west coast only in the late 90s/early 00s) is unfortunately no longer produced, so these days I stick with Hendrick’s. Then again, I prefer very complex, flavorful liquors like Islay Scotches, aged rums, distinctive bourbons, and out-of-the-ordinary cognacs.
    I am very much looking forward to trying out this homemade tonic recipe. We should nudge Cook’s Illustrated to do some research on this topic. πŸ™‚
    Good luck,

  16. BobbyEarle

    I was never a big fan of quinine, but I have developed a taste for it. I recall, in my early teens (maybe ’72, ’73) Shwepps bottled some evil stuff by the name of “Bitter Orange”, and “Bitter Lemon”. They tasted pretty much you would imagine they would taste, although the orange was not “too” bad. I always wondered just what one would do with mixers such as these. I haven’t seen them in quite a while…neither California, or here in Reno.
    I would love to try a ginger ale, or ginger beer home brew. Any thoughts, or recipes laying around?
    Thanks, Mark.
    Oh, I was asked recently if I knew the difference between seltzer water, club soda, and carbonated water. Seems like the seltzer loses its fizz faster than club soda, but is there a tangible difference?

  17. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Homemade ginger ale is really easy – provided you like a very sharp, spicy ginger ale.
    Get a nice hand of fresh ginger. Peel between two and three inches of it, and cut it into disks about 1/8th of an inch thick. Put those into a put with about 2 cups of water and a pinch of salt, and boil them for about ten minutes. Strain it out, then mix in roughly a cup of light brown sugar. Now you’ve got a really nice ginger syrup. Just mix it with seltzer – roughly the same proportions as the tonic recipe.
    You can also just water it down with plain water – you’ll get what Chinese call ginger tea or ginger soup (depending on how much you water it down). It’s delicious, and it’s the best remedy in the known universe for motion sickness.

  18. Jonathan

    Can you reduce the sugar for the tonic water (or ginger ale for that matter) without getting something really evil?
    If it works at half sugar (or syrup) that might make it worth mixing some up.

  19. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    My dad used to drink seltzer and club soda a lot when I was a kid, and being a geek, I wanted to know the difference. So I looked at the ingredients.
    Seltzer is just carbonated water.
    Club soda is seltzer with a bit of salt added.
    Different brands also carbonate them differently. In general, club soda is trying to be a manufactured mineral water. Since natural mineral waters tend to have smaller bubbles, club soda is also carbonated to produce the smaller bubbles.

  20. BobbyEarle

    Thanks for the recipe, Mark.
    I lean towards the ginger beer, as it is less sweet, at least to me, and “gingerier”. Shwepps bottles a ginger beer, but if you can find Cockburn’s beer you will be pleased, if you go for this sort of thing.
    Speaking of liquor, my brother brought me a bottle of Myer’s Legend, and some Flor de Cana 18 year from Nicaragua. The Myer’s is less coppery than their original dark, and the Flor de Cana has a nice cane sugar note to it. The Legend is a bit difficult to find, and I understand that the Flor de Cana is impossible to get here at all due to some trade restrictions, or an embargo.
    Both are well worth the effort to procure.

  21. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    The recipe that I give above is for a serious, intense ginger ale. I hadn’t heard the distinction between ginger ale and ginger beer in terms of intensity/strength of ginger. If you follow the recipe above, you’ll get something with a very serious ginger kick.
    I’m a serious rum freak – it’s my favorite liquor. There’s nothing in the world like a really good wood-aged rum. Myers is OK for mixing, but even their high-end stuff seems sort of bland to me. I can’t remember the name of the one I’m drinking now.. It was reviewed by Eric Asimov for the NYT a while back. It’s a jamaican, I think 12 year wood-aged. It’s got just the barest hint of sweetness, and an amazing depth of flavor. I’ll try to remember to check the bottle and then post the name here.
    A good shot of rum in one of the very intense, hot ginger ales is an amazingly refreshing drink. If only it did something for my muscle tics :-(. Even with the homeade tonic water, I’d rather be drinking one of my rums – but real rums (that is, molasses rums rather than the cachaca) just don’t blend well with the taste of the tonic.

  22. BobbyEarle

    I think Ronrico used to advertise their white rum was a good mix with tonic (might have been Bacardi, it has been a while). Never liked it. The trouble with rum, and bourbon as well, it that there are so many to try!
    I mentioned the Myer’s Legend because it has that “grog” quality, you know, bringing to mind what Ahab’s crew might have been drinking. I do prefer molasses based rums over the cane sugar based, but it seems rather hard to avoid that copper kettle taste.
    And just who the hell is “BoobyEarle”? πŸ™‚

  23. dogscratcher

    ” This variation is particularly good mixed with a nice white rum or cachaca.”
    I find the more rum I use, the better I sleep. As for the gin… gah! like sucking on a pine tree (many parts are edible).

  24. Guest

    Not expecting a medical diagnosis here, but do you happen to have any idea what causes the eye twitches, and why quinine makes it stop? This just started happening with one of my eyes a few weeks ago – very strange.

  25. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    I was just told that it’s a very common stress-related nervous tick – nothing more specific than that.
    Quinine is actually a rather potent pharmaceutical. It’s an anti-fever, anti-inflammatory chemical with some anti-spasm/smooth muscle relaxation properties. That’s the way that it works for the muscle cramps – it’s an anti-spasm drug.


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