Regular Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones is here to with a how-to post designed to help you make tonic water syrup! A fun DIY project for an August weekend. – Marisa
When hot weather comes to Philadelphia, that’s my cue to pick up a bottle of gin — because there’s no better quencher at the end of a long, hot bike commute or gardening session than a bright, herbaceous gin and tonic.
In recent years, I’ve started investing in better, locally produced gins to make my favorite summertime cocktail: bottles of Philadelphia Distilling’s Bluecoat and Palmer Distilling’s Liberty Gin are made in the city; Manatawny Still Works’ Odd Fellows Gin is produced about an hour outside Philly in Pottstown. All three are delicious in a crisp G&T.
With quality craft gin, homemade seltzer (thanks to my secondhand SodaStream), and fresh-squeezed lime juice, I found myself just one ingredient away from a truly bespoke cocktail: homemade tonic water.
While I’d had delicious homemade tonic water thanks to a fellow swapper at the Philly Food Swap, I’d never made it myself. Luckily, the indispensable David Leibovitz had a recipe.
Very important note: David’s recipe also includes a link to this essential guidance on how to make your own tonic and avoid cinchonism, an unpleasant condition caused by overconsumption of quinine, the compound in chinchona bark that gives tonic water its signature bitter flavor and tannic quality.
As far as I can tell, this recipe should be safe as long as you follow guidelines on selecting cut bark rather than powdered, strain well and let sediment settle, limit homemade tonic consumption to one cocktail’s worth per day and make sure to dilute the syrup with seltzer by at least 50%. That said, I’m not a doctor or a scientist, so be sure to read this information thoroughly and follow directions.
Or — to create a tonic water that you can consume with abandon — swap out the chinchona bark with a similar quantity of black tea, which can serve as a comparable bittering agent.
Warnings aside, this recipe is simple to make and delicious to enjoy. Zest and juice citrus fruits, select spices and herbs to customize the flavor, simmer it all together, and let the mixture steep for a few days in the fridge.
Strain the tonic well, let it sit overnight, and pour off (or, for a slightly higher yield, siphon off) the syrup, leaving the chinchona and spice powder that’s settled to the bottom behind.
With a mix of citrus, lots of lemongrass, some tropical spices and an extra limey kick from makrut lime leaves, the finished product smells and tastes delicious — like a really complex, fresh version of lime-flavored jellied citrus candies underlined by a hint of bitterness. Mix with an equal amount of simple syrup, then cut that by at least 50% with fizzy water to use in (occasional) cocktails.
As someone who tries to work in healthier habits without totally abandoning indulgence as I progress through my 30s, turning my favorite boozy quencher into something extra-delicious that should really only be consumed in occasional, moderate doses makes a lot of sense to me.
Homemade Tonic Water
- The zest and juice of an organic lemon lime, orange, and grapefruit
- 1 quart water
- 3 ounces lemongrass chopped (fresh or frozen will work)
- 3 tablespoons citric acid
- 1/2 cup chinchona bark cut, not powdered; available through Penn Herb Co. or black tea (for a quinine-free version)
- 2 makrut lime leaves fresh or frozen will work
- 1/4 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 3 star anise
- 1 teaspoon Cape May Sea Salt or other coarse sea salt
Be sure to consult these guidelines before making or consuming homemade tonic water.
- Combine all ingredients in a nonreactive saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover loosely, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, uncover, and let cool to room temperature.
- Funnel the mixture into a half-gallon glass jar or a two-quart nonreactive vessel. Cover and refrigerate for two days, giving it a stir or a shake a few times each day.
- Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the solids. Strain again through several layers of cheesecloth, a coffee filter, or muslin into a nonreactive vessel. Cover and refrigerate overnight to allow sediment to sink to the bottom.
- The next day, pour or siphon off the mixture into a new nonreactive vessel, taking care not to disturb or pour out any sediment at the bottom (you can strain once more through cheesecloth or a coffee filter after pouring off the mixture to be extra-sure that you've removed any remaining trace of cinchona powder if you like). Choosing to pour off the tonic water will result in a slightly smaller yield than siphoning.
- Combine the tonic water with an equal amount of simple syrup and stir or shake gently to combine. Store in the fridge loosely covered for up to one year. To serve, cut the tonic syrup with seltzer water by at least 50%. Consume in moderation.
I am all for homemade solutions but this one is way too complicated and even has an element of risk. I am a huge fan of gin & tonic and after you find an amazing gin (Martins is my fave) you are still left with mass market tonic water.
There is an alternative that I found that is absolutely wonderful and dead simple. It is Jack Rudy Cocktail Company’s “Classic Tonic Syrup. A dropper of syrup into sparkling water and you have the best tonic water you have ever tasted. I have no connection to them other than being a fanatical customer.
Thanks for this recommendation!
While I make much of the potential risk — mostly because I doubt people are familiar with it — I don’t think of homemade tonic water as a risky product any more than hard alcohol itself is. Limit who drinks it and how much and there should be no issue. And there is a risk-free substitution using black tea that readers can swap out if they don’t want to worry about the quinine issue.
But knowing the way some people (myself included) consume seltzer or flavored soda water, I wanted to make sure readers understand that it’s not recommended to drink lots of seltzer spiked with homemade tonic water that uses chinchona bark all day, every day.
Thanks for the added background, Alex–you prompted me to go back and check my own proportions. That batch you had at the swap a couple years ago (https://csaboxingday.com/2016/03/08/thats-the-spirit-diy-tonic/) had a much lower bark:water ratio (not quite half, but almost), but it does simmer/steep for twice as long. I did filter twice, and with the zip from the juniper and allspice I added, I found I was mixing at least 1:2 syrup:seltzer rather than 50-50 blend, so I’m confident I’m safe. Neverthess, I think next time I’ll try the AeroPress method from the link you included. That’s pretty slick.
Sadly, all the rain this season has my lemongrass plants in a funk. Not even sure I’ll get enough this fall to do a small batch. Boo.
Susan, thanks so much for this info and for your recipe link! This is good perspective to have. I was making this in a cabin and had neglected to bring my Aeropress, so I’ll have to try that method next time (I did 2 filters of cheesecloth but found that after the initial straining, several layers didn’t remove any more sediment). I do like the stronger flavor of a 50-50 tonic to seltzer mix but you could definitely dilute further and still get that effect in a drink.
WOW, amazing flavor punch. Love the citrus flavor but might cut back on the zest next time as it over powers the drink. My husband is not a gin fan so made his with vodka and he loved it. Will be hard to go back to store bought tonic after tasting this home made. And the color is beautiful. Thank you.
Thanks so much for trying the recipe and reporting back! I personally love the citrus (and still add lime juice and throw in the wedge when I make a G&T) but I think it’s a great idea to customize. Glad you enjoyed it!