The brief literary history of a cocktail: The Gin and Tonic

Like the Mint Julep, the Gin and Tonic is of unusual provenance. Similarly born out of a unique historical conjuncture of East and West, the seemingly timeless combination of gin, lime, sugar, and tonic water came into being almost by pure chance, at the intersections of colonialism, modern medicine and, well, boredom. The now famous drink was invented by a group of British soldiers stationed in India in the early 19th century, who undertook several experiments to make their acrid malaria medication passably quaffable. Once the quinine used to treat their malaria was mixed with sugar and lime, it was really only a matter of time before something boozy entered into the equation.

Fitz
Gin lover F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Not long afterwards, the G and T arrived in its imperial home to be met, curiously, with a deep ambivalence. Appearing at an unusual time in English history, the Gin and Tonic was introduced during the hangover following England’s “Gin Craze,” and the moral panic following what has been called its era’s “War on Drugs.”

Years earlier, ginny licentiousness was hit with draconian penalties designed to curb public drunkenness, and grain prices were manipulated in an effort to price gin out of the mouths of the poor. In spite of the residual moral and political concerns over the prurience of the poor—iconically captured by William Hogarth’s painting/proto-public service announcement Beer Street and Gin Lane—the drink nevertheless managed to make a foothold in mainstream English life. However, its sordid associations took longer to disappear—in some London pubs Gin and Tonics were mixed with opium, served up as “heroin martinis”—and it was only after the approval of the budding cocktail culture across the Atlantic that the cocktail finally won a measure of respectability. Once reinvented with its borrowed veneer of elegance, it received the seal of British approval and rapidly became the iconic staple of British culture it is now so often celebrated as, publicly beloved by everyone from James Bond to Winston Churchill (“gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”)

In North America, the drink primarily lives on in the popular literary imagination through the much mythologized life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spent the last half of his life in a perma-soused state, drink never far from hand. Like Faulkner, he was loyal to his particular poison, in his case the “Gin Rickey,” which those close to him affectionately re-dubbed the “Gin Fitzy.” Purportedly, he remained faithful to it because he imagined that gin didn’t leave a smell on his breath, only to have it sadly shipwrecking both his literary career and his already otherwise tumultuous life. Also like Faulkner, Fitzgerald ended his life something of a bitter cautionary tale, a far cry from the sentimentally romantic image of a self-destructive genius that has been passed down over time. As he duly noted, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

Recipe for a Gin Rickey. Enjoy in moderation!

About the author

Michael Bacal

Michael Bacal recently graduated from Ryerson and York University's joint graduate program in Communications and Culture and is currently working in publishing.

By Michael Bacal