So, today — as the rather prosaic title might imply — we’re comparing Fever Tree’s tonic water (both Naturally Light and Regular versions) against Schweppes’ fancy-pants newish 1783 sub-brand (again, Light and Regular variants). And while we’re at it, let’s chuck in a comparison against classic bog-standard Schweppes tonic water for good measure.
I’ve tasted the five of the above tonics blind with dependable old Gordon’s gin. Is Schweppes’ new offering a Fever Tree beater? And how does 1783 compare against standard Schweppes tonic? I suppose we’ll find out, otherwise these two paragraphs will have been an extraordinarily cycnical instance of bait-and-switch.
Poor, dozy old Schweppes, eh? You have to feel sorry, don’t you?, for a global brand when it takes its eye off the ball for a mere decade or so and misses a renaissance within its core category. It’s easily done.
While Schweppes was lounging around in its anachronistically colonial hammock, the upstart Fever Tree coshed its way into the marketplace and ended up with a multi-billion-pound stock market valuation (which does sort of seem, y’know, um, fizzy? But still…). In the process, a new category of ‘premium’ tonics was created — and now throngs with other challengers such as Double Dutch, Barker & Quin, 1724 and more (of which, more to come in a future post…)
At some point, I suppose, the Schweppes execs awoke from their slumbers, tumbled comically from their hammocks, and realised something was amiss.
Cue the rebrand of Schweppes Tonic and the launch of an offshoot family of tonics: 1783. The fact that I’d entirely missed this launch, despite being, as you know, fairly committed to the pursuit of gin-induced shit-facedness, is perhaps an indication of the prominence of the launch. Anyhow. 1783 is the year Schweppes started doing its anti-malarial thing, obv, and it’s the premium spin on the familiar old brand.
As soon as I realised this had happened, a mere year or two after the fact, I knew I’d be obliged, dear squidgy reader, to let you know what this new uber-Schweppes, this heritage-Schweppes, might taste like. They have a bunch of flavours including cucumber tonic, floral tonic, salty lemon tonic and suchlike. Bah. Call me a boring fart, but I go to gin for my flavour. So I’ve only bought and tasted the two normal ones.
Here’s how they fared in my blind tasting, from least nice to best. Links are all to Waitrose.com, because of course they are.
Schweppes vs Fever Tree Tonic Tasting
5. Schweppes 1783 Light Tonic Water
Schweppes 1783 Light is a bit odd. I mean, it doesn’t really taste like tonic, does it? It’s not hideous, I should say, but I feel like it’s more of a skinny bitter lemon than a genuine tonic water. Which is fine if that’s what you want — you misguided imbecile — but not really what I’m after, tbh. It’s got a school-trip-packed-lunch-fizzy-pop hyperactivity to it with lots of artificial perfumey stuff going on: violet and sherbert and shizz. It’s enough to give you a headache just thinking about it.
I suppose it’s possible this could partner well with certain gins (I suppose I’ll be seeing if I can find any, given I have five more mini-cans of the stuff to get through, so will let you know) but with a classic London gin, I just don’t think this works. At all.
A six-pack of Schweppes 1783 Light Tonic Water is currently on offer for £2 at Waitrose. Regular price will be £3.69, making it 61.5p per can.
4. Schweppes Tonic Water
Then we come to regular ol’ Schweppes. Now, this is sad. Because — you know what? — in so many respects it’s actually really good. It has more of a quinine kick than almost any other tonic out there. And quinine is great! It’s far more pronounced in classic Schweppes than in 1783. It’s harder, drier, more aggressively one-dimensional than any of the other tonics here. And, you know, that’s a wonderful thing. I mean, drinking it on its own, it’s nasty, obviously. But you, my friend, you are drinking it with gin. The gin is where the interesting stuff comes from, let’s be honest. Where Schweppes basic gets it TOTALLY right is in its commitment to a limited role that leaves the gin to shine. It makes for a wonderful dry G&T in which its contribution is largely limited to that dry laceration of bitterness; no floral crap and not too much sweetness.
You know what’s coming, don’t you? Fucking sodium saccharin, that’s what. Jesus Howling Christ, I cannot stand artificial sweeteners. I know plenty of people don’t have this problem, and, yeah, I’m immeasurably happy for them (dickheads). But, really. That ganky catch at the back of your throat, that pissy, chemical bitterness. How can you stand it? Rank.
If you don’t have this problem, Schweppes basic tonic may well be the best tonic out there. Enjoy it. You bastard. If you want the rest of my bottle, drop me a line.
A 12-pack of Schweppes Tonic costs £4.09 at Waitrose, making it 34p per can.
Now. With those first two out of the way, things get really rather interesting. And really rather nice.
3. Schweppes 1783 Crisp Tonic Water
Third place goes to Schweppes 1783 regular. It’s good. There’s an echo of that old Schweppes bite, though as I said it’s less quinine-heavy. It has slightly less depth and complexity to it than Fever Tree Regular, which (meine meinung nach) tastes that bit more adult, more savoury. With 1783 Regular, lemon zestiness is more forward, and there is a slight lemony loo cleaner aftertaste (that sounds dreadful, I realise, and it’s not nearly as bad as all that, but you know what I mean?). So it’s not quite as nice as Fever Tree, but that’s comparing the two side-by-side — and you absolutely would not be anything other than delighted if somebody gave you this G&T. It’s a good, solid, honest drink. Sweetish, softish, but with lemon and bite enough to make its presence felt.
A six-pack of Schweppes 1783 Crisp Tonic Water is currently on offer for £2 at Waitrose. Regular price will be £3.69, making it 61.5p per can.
Good stuff. But not quite as good as…
2. Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water
Fever Tree’s Regular tonic is jolly nice. I think this might possibly even be a tad sweeter than 1783 (though there’s not much in it; both are too sweet for my own preference, though not nearly as much so as some tonics). The thing that lifts Fever Tree Regular above 1873 Crisp Tonic, though, is its fullness, its depth and slight savoury element. There’s something subtly yeasty going on, alongside the usual citrus and quinine, that really fills out the drink and complements the gin without dominating. If only it were less sweet.
An eight-pack of Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water is £4.25 at Waitrose, making it 53p per can — cheaper than 1783 at full price.
Which leaves the winner. By a furlong:
1. Fever Tree Naturally Light Tonic Water
Best in show. I mean, this is normally my tonic of choice, and I’m reassured to find it remains my favourite when tasted blind. It’s the only one of the five tasted here (with the massively qualified exception, perhaps, of Schweppes basic) that isn’t too sweet, and that lets the gin shine to its fullest extent. I’m strongly of the view that the better and more interesting your gin, the more compelling the case for accompanying it with Fever Tree Light Tonic. It’s lean and clean and modest — as it bloody should be — and it steps back from the limelight. It’s got a good bite to it and it balances your gin very easily (whereas I find that the Fever Tree Regular and Schweppes 1783 both demand very careful adjustment of ratio to make sure they tip over into neither tonicky over-sweetness nor gin-heavy alco-belch territory). Fever Tree Naturally Light is far more forgiving, simply because it’s less goddamn sweet.
An eight-pack of Fever Tree Naturally Light Tonic Water is £4.25 at Waitrose, making it 53p per can — cheaper than 1783 at full price.
Please, god, tonic-makers, just tone it the fuck down with the sugar, can’t you? I realise most people presumably disagree with me on this, otherwise why would the sweet stuff be the default option? Obviously, most people are idiots.
You’re not an idiot, are you, though? No, you read this excellent blog. So you’ll stick around for the conclusions.
Fever Tree beats Schweppes 1783…
…but it’s not the thrashing I half-expected. Sure, Fever Tree Naturally Light craps on all the other options from a fairly considerable height — and it’s disappointing that the 1783 Light option isn’t close to being a worthy adversary.
But the two ‘regular’ tonics are really both very good, and Schweppes’ premium effort is only a whisker less nice than Fever Tree’s.
Not a bad effort after a few decades swinging indolently in one’s hammock, I suppose.