A Tale of Two Tonics

This was supposed to be a blog post of victory. Of trial and triumph and making my own homemade tonic for the most amazing Gin and Tonic ever.

Most importantly, I would finally uncover the answer, dear readers, as to whether cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona or cinchona powder truly made the best flavored tonic.  So many recipes don’t even specify; or if they call out C/S or powder, they never say why. At last, the mystery would be solved, with tasting notes so you would know which option worked best for your own tonic endeavors.

Powdered cinchona (left) compared to cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right)
Powdered cinchona (left) compared to cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right)

Oh, how I failed.

The Recipe

As the basis for my research, I used this recipe for  two reasons: I thought the cold brew method would produce the best flavor, and because they were trying to produce a tonic “just barely sweet and pleasantly bitter.” Sounds like a sip of perfect to me!

I split the recipe quantities in half, and for one portion used powdered cinchona and the other portion, cut/sifted. I measured them by weight; powdered is more dense, due to the fine particle, so measuring by volume may have resulted in more actual cinchona in the powdered half, compared to the C/S half.

Tonic ingredients ready to steep! Powdered cinchona shown on the left, cut/sifted (C/S) on the right.
Tonic ingredients ready to steep! Powdered cinchona shown on the left, cut/sifted (C/S) on the right.
USEFUL FACT: Here is the formula to convert between powdered and cut/sifted quantity.
1 ounce of powdered cinchona measures by volume approximately 1/4 cup.
1 ounce of cut/sifted cinchona measures by volume approximately 1/3 cup.
So if you need powdered, and you have C/S, increase the quantity by 1/12 the amount. Conversely if you need C/S and you have powdered, decrease the volume by 1/12. (Or – spoiler alert – don’t worry about it, because you probably wouldn’t detect a measurable difference anyway. Read on…)
Even with equal amounts by weight, I thought the powdered cinchona would come out more quinine-y (is that a word?) because the powder variety had more surface area to be surrounded by alcohol to extract all the flavor.
Two tonics steeping. The tonic with the powdered cinchona is on the left, and the cut/sifted (C/S) is on the right.
Two tonics steeping. The tonic with the powdered cinchona is on the left, and the cut/sifted (C/S) is on the right.
But. I committed one error in this whole exercise. The most grievous error of all. See, I make my own mixers and liqueurs because I despise sickeningly sweet flavors. In fact, I dislike refined sugar so much, I always cut the quantities or replace it with other ingredients. Maybe I got the ratios wrong. Maybe I screwed up by substituting demerara for cane sugar. Maybe I screwed up by violating my primary directive with sweetening boozy concoctions – add a teensy amount of sweetener, check taste, and keep adding an ounce or so at a time – because I wanted to make sure both halves sweetened equally. I just added the amount of rich syrup called for, half in each jar.

Results, Take 1

Long story short: both batches of tonic syrup tasted like lemon-lime soda syrup. Seriously. They weren’t “bad” but when diluted with soda water, they did NOT taste like tonic. The bitter taste of the quinine was barely detectable. I couldn’t even taste it enough to offer an opinion as to whether the powdered or cut/sifted actually turned out better – or even different from one another.

The true test – the long awaited G&T – tasted like Gin and 7 Up. Not “bad”, but totally NOT the effect I was hoping for.

*sobs*

I stuffed the two batches of tonic syrup in the back of the fridge while I contemplated how to recover from this tragedy.

Take 2

Dead Rabbit to the rescue. (Yes, I really did type that…)

See,  The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual has a recipe for quinine tincture, so I decided to try the powdered vs. cut/sifted taste off one more time. Split the recipe in half – 1 oz c/s and 1 oz powdered, each covered with 2.25 fl oz Everclear.

Dead Rabbit quinine tincture in progress. Powdered cinchona (left) versus cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right).
Dead Rabbit quinine tincture in progress. Powdered cinchona (left) versus cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right).

After three days of steeping, I strained the two tinctures, and realized that with or without a workable tonic water, I have a DEFINITE preference for the cut/sifted cinchona over the powdered. Even if the powdered was 100 times more strongly flavored (which it wasn’t), I lost so much tincture while filtering, straining, pressing, and re-filtering. The wet powdered cinchona formed a fine, silty mud that clung to anything it touched and clogged up three Chemex® filters. (I should have taken a picture of the cinchona mud, but I was so dismayed that was the last thing on my mind.) Even after all the work, the resulting photos show clearly that the powdered cinchona tincture isn’t, well, clear.

Dead Rabbit quinine tincture after steeping. Even after filtering, the tincture made with powdered cinchona (left) is murky compared to the cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right).
Dead Rabbit quinine tincture after steeping. Even after filtering, the tincture made with powdered cinchona (left) is murky compared to the cut/sifted (C/S) cinchona (right).


REMEMBER, dear readers – strain the cinchona really, really, really well. Cinchonism is a “thing”. You can read more about it here.  OK, done nagging now!

Results

I sampled each quinine tincture, and the powdered version is marginally more strongly flavored. It also had an astringent quality – like eating an unripe persimmon – that sucked the moisture out of my tongue. However, once I added the two tinctures to their matching tonic syrups, the other flavors entirely masked the differences.

Takeaways

  1. Powdered cinchona bark is messy to work with and requires thorough filtering. If you’re making tonic syrup, the flavor difference isn’t dramatic enough to justify all the extra work.
  2. You can’t take out rich syrup once you’ve added it.
  3. If you want to make your own tonic syrup, you can buy cinchona bark online here.
  4. I’d rather drink gin in a Corpse Reviver #2 anyway!

Cinchona Bark

Cinchona (Cinchona officinalis) is the bark from a tree originally native to South America. It is also known as Jesuit’s bark or Peruvian bark.

Primary Use

Source of quinine, the primary ingredient of tonic water.

Cinchona Bark, Cut & Sifted (Cinchona officinalis)
Cinchona Bark, Cut & Sifted (Cinchona officinalis)

Purchase: Individually or as part of a set.

Historical Use

Medically, cinchona was used to treat malaria. It has also been used to treat leg and muscle cramps, as well as being a tonic for fevers.

Recipes using Cinchona Bark

I have not tried any tonic water recipes myself … but when I do, I will start with this one because I avoid mixers which are excessively sweet.

The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual has a recipe for Cinchona Tincture.

Cinchona Bark, Powdered (Cinchona officinalis)
Cinchona Bark, Powdered (Cinchona officinalis)

Other Notes

Make sure you filter all cinchona particulate out of any homemade concoctions. A build up of quinine in the body can lead to a condition called cinchonism. Additional information can be found here. Our cinchona bark is whole, not powdered, but some amount of powder is often present among the chunks and so caution (and extra filtering) is still advised.

Read More

On Wikipedia

On WebMD


Please note: The information on this website is for educational purposes only. Any health information about bitters and our products for sale have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.