In each monthly installment of Bender, Caroline Ferguson will explore the social, cultural, and historical context of a single cocktail or boozy beverage. From settling which country lays claim to Pisco to exploring the Carthusian Monks’ chartreuse caves, Caroline will try to track down all the places your drink has been before it gets in your glass—always ending with a recipe of her own creation. Pull up a chair and a glass.
It turns out that, like many things that white people like, gin and tonics are a byproduct of European colonialism. Starting in South America, the Quechua people of Peru and Bolivia have long valued quinine, a naturally-occurring alkaloid derived from cinchona bark, for its fever-reducing properties. But, it wasn’t until the Jesuits arrived in the mid-1600s that a second crucial property of the compound was discovered: quinine was surprisingly effective at treating malaria, which had made its way to the Americas a century before thanks to European settlers and slaves from Africa.
It wasn’t until 200 years later, though, that quinine was isolated from cinchona bark. The first tonic waters contained large amounts of quinine, some water and sugar, and little else. Though Schweppes sold carbonated and bottled tonic water by the 1870s, bitter tonics still served as the primary prophylaxis against malarial infection through the mid-20th century, with the Dutch maintaining majority control over the cinchona trade for much of its history. In fact, it’s been posited that this malaria treatment contributed to European colonialism and global dominance, particularly over malaria-prone regions in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Americas. 
Incidentally, around the same time that malaria arrived in the Americas, gin was first being created halfway around the world. Most reports attribute the development of gin to the Dutch alchemist Sylvius de Bouve, who sought to create a medicine derived from juniper berries  (the attribution, though, is a loose one—the records here are foggy, as can be expected when the mystery figure in question spent his days sampling 100-proof, pine-scented hooch). During the Thirty Years’ War, gin eventually made its way over to England. It became hugely popular in the early 1700s following a Glorious Revolution–mandated end to the royal monopoly on alcohol production.
With a tasty, pungent liquor exploding in popularity on the home front, an unpalatably bitter malaria cure on the rise, and a proliferation of malaria-vulnerable British officers stationed in India, it was only a matter of time before some mixology occurred. British colonists started mixing their doses of tonic with even larger doses of gin, and the G&T was born. As more and more British colonists moved to India, the drink spread like wildfire.
Nowadays, the medicinal bitterness of tonic water has lessened considerably, though small amounts of quinine still lend a pleasant metallic note to this classic cocktail (and make it glow under a black light—seriously). Many widely-available tonic waters now contain high fructose corn syrup to sweeten things up, though artisan and homemade tonics have gained some traction thanks to the craft cocktail movement.
Speaking of said movement, I’m sorry to say that the humble G&T seems to have been left in the dust. More often than not it’s maligned as a boring and uninspired choice, best left to power lunching baby boomers and polo-donning dudebros.
As for me, I was introduced to G&Ts by my dad when I was naught but a baby boozehound, still wet behind the ears and eager to learn (and, in the interest of full disclosure, a few years shy of legal). True to fifty-something-Manhattanite-white-dude form, G&Ts have been my dad’s drink of choice as long as I can remember, and I’d long coveted the lovely Bombay Sapphire bottle that sat, perpetually present and wholly unattainable, on a top shelf in our pantry.
“The thing that I like about gin and tonics,” my dad told me, giving my drink a parting squeeze of lime, “is that a well-mixed one pretty much just tastes like a Sprite.”
I took a sip. I could see what he was getting at with the comparison, but that wasn’t what drew me in.
“This kind of tastes like a Christmas tree,” I told him. “But in a good way, somehow.”
The juniper smacked me in the face – probably due to a heavy pour on his part – followed by a steady undercurrent of minerals, metallics, and something a bit medicinal. I was intrigued. His favorite drink had become one of mine.
Made well, with quality ingredients, the G&T is far from uninspired. If you’re still unconvinced, give this appropriately FLESH-y variation a try—it makes the most of the late August apricot crop, with hints of a softly floral honey rounding out the drink’s sharper edges.
Apricot Honey Gin and Tonic
For apricot honey puree:
2 apricots, chopped
2 tsp. wildflower honey
Juice of ½ lime
1 TBSP. Grand Marnier (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes until apricots soften. Transfer to blender and blend on high speed until a puréed consistency is achieved. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer to remove pulp. It may help to stir and press the mixture with a spoon to help the process along. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use. Makes enough purée for approximately four cocktails.
For each cocktail:
1 TBSP. apricot honey purée, or more or less to taste
2 oz. gin
4 oz. tonic, ideally high fructose corn syrup–free*, chilled well
Lime slices for garnish
Pour purée into glass. Add gin and stir until a smooth consistency is reached. Add tonic and ice (if desired) and mix. Garnish with a lime slice.
*I specify not to be a jerk, but because the honey adds plenty of sweetness. Look for Q Tonic.
 Science and Colonial Expansion, Lucille H. Brockway (Yale University Press, 2002)
 The Book of Gin, Richard Barnett (Grove Press, 2012)