What Is Tonic Water—and Which Are the Best Tonic Waters?

Updated: May 02, 2023

Wise drinkers shouldn't focus only on the gin in a gin and tonic. Here's the answer to "what is tonic water?"—and why your choice of tonic water can make or break this refreshing cocktail.

Mixologist making refreshing cocktail with hard seltzer at homeAamulya/Getty Images

A gin and tonic is one of the most popular cocktails in the world. When I explained how to make a gin and tonic, I discussed the art of making the perfect G&T but only briefly covered the importance of tonic water and how it can drastically change the flavor of your drink. So, let’s explore exactly what is tonic water and how it can alter your cocktail from drab to magical.

What Is Tonic Water?

The simplest description of tonic water is a quinine-flavored carbonated soft drink. Yes, in the mixology world, tonic water is considered a soft drink. It’s usually made from carbonated water mixed with a simple syrup containing a quinine.

Quinine, which is derived from cinchona bark, gives tonic water most of its characteristic bitter flavor. Cinchona bark was first used in South America and the Caribbean to combat malaria. The British then started mixing it with lime juice and eventually gin to make it more palatable. From there it kept evolving until into the refreshing beverage we know today.

Is Tonic Water Good for You?

There are quite a few medical benefits from consuming quinine, from treating malaria to alleviating leg cramps. However, if you’re using tonic water to get the benefits of quinine, then you should look into quinine pills instead.

The high sugar content usually found in tonic water is the issue many dietitians are concerned about. In some brands, there can be a shockingly high amount of sugar. If you’re on a low-carb diet, avoiding sugar or simply reducing your caloric intake, you need to select your tonic water carefully. Some brands have more sugar than you may realize.

Is Tonic Water the Same as Club Soda?

The short answer is no. Club soda or sparkling water is just one component of tonic water. The other ingredients are sugar or corn syrup, quinine and, in some blends, other herbs and spices. Club soda contains no sugar or other ingredients so it has zero calories, but you will be missing out on a lot of flavor.

Tonic Water vs. Tonic Syrup

Like a famous fast food restaurant used to say, “Have it your way” is the motto of many cocktail makers these days. To get the iconic bitter mixer you now have several options.

Traditional tonic water is as easy as open and pour. The problem is the bottle size. How often have you opened a big bottle of tonic water only to find it completely flat the next time you go to mix a drink? Fortunately, you can now find smaller bottles good for one or two cocktails, ensuring your G&T will be the bubbliest it can be.

If you want to have more control over how bitter your cocktail is, try tonic syrups. Add a tablespoon or two along with some club soda or sparkling water for a drink that’s perfect for you.

Do All Tonic Waters Taste the Same?

Not too long ago, the answer would have been yes. The options were limited and they all tasted pretty much the same. Thankfully, there are some innovative mixologists experimenting with different flavors and even creating tonics to go with specific types of gin. The choices are ever-expanding. Below are a few of our current favorites.

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Nordic Tonic Syrup
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Most Unusual Tonic Syrup

The Yes Cocktail Co. out of Paso Robles, California, has a wide range of different tonic syrups, but our tasting panel here at Taste of Home was blown away by the Nordic Tonic Syrup. The flavors of caraway and other savory herbs took our G&Ts to a whole new level. This is intense, in a good way!

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Rose City Tonic Syrup
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Most Genteel Tonic Syrup

If you dream of sipping cocktails at a sprawling country estate on a sunny summer day, then get some Rose City Tonic from Portland Syrups. The predominant flavor and aroma comes from dog rose petals, a.k.a. rosa canina. I know what you’re thinking: You don’t want to drink perfume. This tonic is far from it. It’s just the right amount and pairs well with drier gins.

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Pratt Standard Cocktail Co
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Best Cold Weather Tonic Syrup

If you’re like us, gin and tonics aren’t only for hot summer weather. We’ll drink them all year, especially when made with Pratt Standard’s True Tonic Syrup. It has the flavor of all those warming winter spices that make you feel cozy. If you want to really warm up, swap the gin for bourbon.

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El Guapo Tonic Syrup
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Most Traditional Tonic Syrup

There’s nothing wrong with sticking with classic flavors. El Guapo Bitters captures them in its British Colonial Style Tonic Syrup, which has citrus flavors accompanying the bitter tones. Pair it with London Dry gin.

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The London Essence Co Tonic Water
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Most Traditional Tonic Water

If you’re throwing a party, stock up on individual bottles of London Essence Original Indian Tonic Water. It’s the perfect amount for one tall, refreshing cocktail full of citrus and juniper flavors.

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Ever American Tonic Water
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Least Bitter Tonic Water

We get it, not everyone likes a strongly bitter cocktail. For something on the milder side, try the tonic water from Ever American. It is also one of the most effervescent tonic waters we’ve come across, so if you’re a bubbles fan, this is for you.

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Dr Inkers Choice Lime Tonic Water
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Tonic Water for Lime Lovers

Can’t get enough lime? Dr. Inker’s Original Tonic with Lime has plenty of lime flavor, and with its 12-ounce bottles, it’s enough for you and a friend to enjoy together.

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Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water
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Tonic Water’s New Industry Standard

Not long ago, the tonic water market was dominated by Canada Dry and Schweppes, with a few other brands flirting around the edges. While these beverage behemoths are still available, Fever-Tree’s tonic water is making a big mark in a quickly crowding space. It’s proving itself to be the brand to beat.

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Taste of Home
Originally Published in Taste of Home