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FOOD AND DRINK

4 MIN

Q is for Quinine: How a New Yorker Made Tonic Water Better

A business born in a Brooklyn apartment helped launch a revolution in drink mixers

One warm summer night in Brooklyn in 2003, Jordan Silbert had his best friends over to his apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, for gin and tonics. After a few, he noticed his teeth felt sticky. Comparing its nutritional information to that of his friend’s big-brand soda, Silbert quickly realized his tonic was more or less the same kind of drink, containing lots of high fructose corn syrup, sodium benzoate and artificial flavours.

He describes the epiphany that came next in florid terms. Silbert looked over at a bottle of gin “glowing in the moonlight like this orb of green gin goodness bringing beauty and health to the entire planet,” he recalls. “And then I looked over at the bottle of the tonic water and thought, ‘What a piece of crap!’ ”

Believing there should be a tonic water as good as the gin he was mixing it with, the born-and-raised New Yorker took it upon himself to improve the quality of cocktail mixers. Q has become a favourite of quality-oriented bartenders, and growing more widely available all the time (check a gourmet food store near you!).

But first, the formula

The very next morning Silbert began his quest by figuring out why tonic water was so crappy.

Tonic water is defined by the flavour of quinine, a medicinal chemical derived from cinchona bark that was traditionally used to prevent and fight malaria (indeed, that was tonic water’s original purpose – it was British soldiers stationed in 19th-century India who first mixed their medicine with gin). Traditionally, it was a bitter dram that soldiers discovered went down easier with the addition of some sugar, lime and water.

Silbert researched the later history of tonic water and discovered that around the 1950s and 60s, the big soda companies had removed real quinine and sugar from their tonics, replacing these ingredients with synthetic quinine and high-fructose corn syrup. Tonic became less medicinal and more of a product like any other soda, and the change was driven by cost efficiency rather than flavour.

“By the time the piece ran I had bars in Japan calling me – 800 places around the world wanted to buy the stuff.”

Soon Silbert placed an order for cinchona bark from Peru. When it arrived, he started mixing proto-tonics in his kitchen. Rather than a carbonated tonic water, his first iteration was a concentrated tonic tincture meant to be added to gin and club soda to make a great-tasting and authentic gin and tonic. (There are similar products on the market now.) Eventually Silbert found a soda plant to make a small run of his proprietary tonic water. The final product is nicely carbonated with a definite bubbly bite while minerally bitterness is the main flavour, rounded out by a subtle sweetness that is barely perceptible. Anyone looking for a non-alcoholic – but not sweet – drink might enjoy Q Tonic on its own, without gin.  

Tonic takeoff

Silbert figured his tonic would be for personal use and gifts.His timing was fortunate, however. This was around a decade ago, and his experiments coincided with the cocktail revival movement in New York. The idea of taking drinks very seriously was about to spread across the United States and abroad. Bartenders were upgrading just about everything behind the bar. While today’s cocktail bar-goers might take our organic garnishes, artisanal soda mixers with locally handcrafted spirits for granted, it was not so long ago that any of this was nearly impossible to find. Products like craft tonics and interesting cocktail bitters were rare or nonexistent, even at the best establishments. So when an alternative tonic arrived, drinks enthusiasts were eager to pop it open.

Once he had his first bottles in hand, Silbert posted online about his new pet project on eGullet, an early foodie website. It didn’t take long for beverage industry leaders to request a taste. Jim Meehan, the man behind Manhattan’s famous PDT cocktail bar (later at Gramercy Tavern) was quick to snatch some up to use in his beverage program. Another early delivery, to acclaimed New York establishment Milk & Honey, was done with a borrowed car at 2:30 a.m. after the bar closed. Milk & Honey paid with cash out of the register.

“A couple weeks later one of the gin companies found me. They were doing a big event at Rockefeller Center and they wanted to do ultimate gin and tonics,” Silbert recalls. “Florence Fabricant from the New York Times was there and she loved the tonic water, so I got a call from the fact checking department the next morning.

Courtesy Q Drinks

“By the time the piece ran I had bars in Japan calling me – 800 places around the world wanted to buy the stuff.”

Realizing his hobby had filled a gaping hole in the craft cocktail culture, Jordan began amassing a team and setting up his business. The team remains small today. Q still employs fewer than a dozen dedicated people, and the product is still made the same way.

Today the Q Drinks line of cocktail mixers includes the original tonic, a traditional cola with real kola nuts, a ginger ale, a spicier ginger beer, a club soda, and – perhaps most excitingly – a grapefruit soda that makes palomas dangerously easy to whip up.

While they are delicious on their own, Q’s products are designed as mixers rather than ready-to-drink beverages. “If you have too much sugar in your mixers, you can’t taste the subtleties of the spirits” Silbert says. “We use real, authentic ingredients, not a lot of sugar, and extra carbonation.” Extra-thick glass allows Q to pack powerful carbonation to keep cocktails fizzy throughout, an important detail in crafting the perfect drink.

Consumers have also started to recognize Q Drinks as a sign of quality, almost like a secret handshake. And Silbert’s favourite drink remains the gin and tonic.

Published Tuesday, December 6th 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Q Drinks

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