The Best Tonic for your Gin — 2019 Edition

Which tonic is supersonic? According to the laws of physics, none of them. But what care we for physics? We have gin. So the idea of this post, in case the title didn’t tip you off, is to taste and rank the numerous premium tonics in a quest to crown the best tonic for your gin.

You remember, don’t you, my pretties, the time that we blind tasted ten gins in an attempt to crown 2019’s best gin for a G&T? Well, this is the inevitable tonic-centred follow-up.

The market for premium tonic waters has become a lot livelier since Fever Tree first booted it up the arse. The question is, with which of these new wanky tonics should you grace your G&T? Which, in short, is the best tonic for a gin and tonic?

To find out, I (aided as ever by the delectable Amy) blind tasted fourteen of the buggers. FOURTEEN. Imagine, ten years ago, even being able to lay hands on that many tonics! Okay, so it turns out you wouldn’t want to lay hands on some of them, but hey, I guess progress punches both ways. I tasted them blind with Gordon’s — the classic, natch — as well as the frankly outstanding Society’s High Strength Gin (£19, The Wine Society) to see how they fared against a more hoofing spirit. Finally, I tasted them on their own, because I’m a masochist.

Below, my impressions of each — and, at the end, the ranking.

An assortment of glasses filled with tonic ready for tasting
Glasses coded, labelled and ready…

The Tonics: Tasting Notes

Le Tribute Tonic Water

£1.75 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

This one has cardamom aplenty, along with the usual lemony goings on. It is balanced and there’s a bit of bite there. It does taste like tonic but definitely pushing the boundaries with that big dose of cardamom. It’s actually nice to drink on its own. But too sweet for me in a G&T. Get used to this last observation, won’t you?

Main flavour: Cardamom/spice
Bite: 2/5
Sweetness: 4/5
G&T rating: 6/10

Barker & Quin Light at Heart Tonic Water

£33.95 for a case of 24 20cl bottles from Amazon

Quinine dominates here. A classic tonic. Nice and moderately bitter; dry yet also full. Not too sweet and feels like a proper, serious G&T. Extremely goddamn nice. Barker, Quin — I don’t know who you are, and you probably only exist in the imagination of some branding arsehole who didn’t think adequately about how Barker & Quin would be abbreviated (B&Q is surely not a brand adjacency that does you many favours), but I nevertheless raise my hat to you. Your light tonic is excellent.

Main flavour: Quinine
Bite: 4/5
Sweetness: 1/5
G&T rating: 10/10

Thomas Henry Tonic Water

£1.15 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

A pretty classic, down-the-line approach from Mr Henry. There’s a decent amount of quinine dryness here, which I like, but too much sugar. Lemon is the other dominant flavour. Compared to the strongest contenders here, this is on the lemonadey side, but definitely better than many in that dodgy neck of the woods.

Main flavour: Lemon
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 3/5
G&T rating: 6/10

Barker & Quin Finest Indian Tonic Water

£33.95 for a case of 24 20cl bottles from Amazon

This is relatively balanced, but quinine is again pushed further back in the mix than I like in favour of lemon. Note to y’all, tonic makers: if I want to add lemon to my drink, I have a super-simple way to do that. The same is not true of quinine. Adjust your mixers accordingly, please. Anyhow, B&Q’s regular variant is close to Fever Tree Regular but a little less savoury/complex and a little less assertive. The fizz is quite soft and frothy compared to most. And — what do you know? — it’s too sweet.

Main flavour: Lemon
Bite: 2/5
Sweetness: 3/5
G&T rating: 5/10

Fever Tree Naturally Light Tonic Water

£0.95 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Not too sweet! What’s more, it has good character. It’s similar to Barker & Quin Light in being quinine-led and serious. Comparing the two side by side, I think Fever Tree is possibly slightly less dry and quinine-driven. Bloody good though.

Main flavour: Quinine
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 1/5
G&T rating: 9/10

Fever Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water

£0.95 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Balanced. Although it falls into the ‘too sweet’ category (along with the goddamn majority), it’s one of the strongest contenders otherwise, with a decent dose of quinine assertiveness and savoury complexity that supports but doesn’t overwhelm.

Main flavour: Balanced (Lemon/Quinine)
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 3/5
G&T rating: 7/10

Distillers Tonic Original

£1.10 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

This one has a lemony initial hit but a brutally bitter aftertaste. There’s decent quinine bite to begin with, but the bite becomes a chew, then a gnaw, then finally a gnash. It leaves residual bitterness lingering in your gob for a long time. All I can say in its favour is that at least it’s not sweet. Tastes like what Amy imagines dandelion juice would, if that’s helpful. The bottle says it’s the “distillers’ choice”; I’m afraid it’s not mine.

Main flavour: Bitterness
Bite: 5/5
Sweetness: 0/5
G&T rating: 1/10

Schweppes 1783 Crisp Tonic Water

£3.69 for 6 150ml cans from Waitrose

I wrote about the new premium Schweppes tonics at some length before, and my verdict there stands: Schweppes 1783 Crisp Tonic is sweetish, softish, but with lemon and bite enough to make its presence felt. A somewhat less compelling take on Fever Tree Regular, with the same problems (too sweet, too sweet — sing along with me, children! — too sweeeeeeet…)

Main flavour: Balanced (lemon/quinine)
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 3/5
G&T rating: 6/10

Double Dutch Skinny Tonic Water

£0.95 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Most of the ‘light’ tonic variants focus in on the quinine elements, but Double Dutch has a distinctive softness: it’s not sweet, which is great, yes, but it ALSO has the quinine dialled back. What you do get is a cloudlike impression: soft, enveloping, ephemeral perfume which dies away incredibly quickly. There’s also some artificial lemon flavour in there. I like the lack of sweetness, but not the lack of punch.

Main flavour: Perfume
Bite: 1/5
Sweetness: 1/5
G&T rating: 4/10

Distillers Tonic Dry

£1.10 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Well, okay. This one is utterly without sweetness: it sure is dry. There’s some quinine bite there, but the whole thing has an odd sense of being watery: empty. This could work well with some new-wave high-flavour gins, but with both Gordon’s and Society’s High Strength Gin it just tasted like a G&T with too much ice-melt. A shame.

Main flavour: the absence thereof
Bite: 2/5
Sweetness: 0/5
G&T rating: 3/10

Double Dutch Indian Tonic Water

£0.95 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Oh, this is not very nice, I’m afraid. It’s TOO SWEET and has less bite than your toothless great aunt. There’s a not-at-all-welcome bubblegummy whiff hanging about, which doesn’t help.

Main flavour: confectionery
Bite: 1/5
Sweetness: 4/5
G&T rating: 2/10

Schweppes 1783 Light Tonic Water

£3.69 for 6 150ml cans from Waitrose

Again, you can read more about this tonic in my Schweppes vs Fever Tree post, but the gist is that it’s funky and weird: violet and sherbert and shizz. It’s not actively nasty, but nor does it taste much like I want a tonic to taste.

Main flavour: parma violet and suchlike
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 2/5
G&T rating: 3/10

London Essence Co. Classic Tonic

£0.75 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Argh, Jesus, take it away. This is truly horrible. It’s not really like a tonic water at all. There’s lashings of vanilla, which is all very well, but not something I want added to my gin, and the flavour is pitilessly artificial. And in case you were looking for further reasons to sling this fucker as far as you can hurl, it’s got artificial sweeteners in it. Piss off.

Main flavour: despair
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 3/5 (but satanic, artificial sweetness)
G&T rating: 0/10

1724 Tonic Water

£1.25 for 20cl bottle at The Whisky Exchange

Inoffensive. 1724 is another tonic that seems slightly worried about being a tonic, and ends up tasting lemonadey and diffident. And it’s far too sweet, even by the standards of most of this lineup. If it weren’t for the sweetness, it’d be fine. Y’know, just fine. But needs more quinine.

Main flavour: lemonade
Bite: 1/5
Sweetness: 5/5
G&T rating: 4/10

The Best Tonic Water: Rankings

Bottles of tonic water in a line. Lots of different brands.

So, from best to worst, here’s a summary of how they fared.

  1. Barker & Quin Light Tonic (10/10)
  2. Fever Tree Naturally Light Tonic (9/10)
  3. Fever Tree Regular Tonic (7/10)
  4. Schweppes 1724 Crisp Tonic (6/10)
  5. Thomas Henry Tonic (6/10)
  6. Le Tribute Tonic (6/10)
  7. Barker & Quin Regular Tonic (5/10)
  8. Double Dutch Skinny Tonic (4/10)
  9. 1724 Tonic (4/10)
  10. Schweppes 1724 Light Tonic (3/10)
  11. Distillers Dry Tonic (3/10)
  12. Double Dutch Original Tonic (2/10)
  13. Distillers Original Tonic (1/10)
  14. London Essence Tonic (0/10)

So Barker & Quin Light snatched it by a whisker. Good luck finding it in your local supermarket, though. Waitrose shoppers needn’t be disheartened: to be honest, there was very little to choose between B&Q Light and Fever Tree Light; I found it rather tough to pick a winner. But nobody said the life of a booze blogger was easy, did they?

DID THEY?

And what have we learnt along the way? Firstly, I suppose (and forgive me if I should’ve made this more obvious above), that the vast majority of tonics are far too goddamn sweet. I suppose I ought to be grateful that most of them (with the ignoble exception of the revolting London Essence) at least eschew artificial sweeteners.

Second: while Fever Tree may’ve been first to start gobbling from the premium tonic cash trough, it’s no clapped out old sow yet. Most of its would-be challengers are significantly less nice, even while they’re frequently more expensive.

Third: a surprisingly large number of so-called ‘premium’ tonics are not very good. Over half my list scored 5/10 or lower. No supper for them.

Shall we stretch to a fourth? Oh go on. Fourth: tonic has a classic flavour profile you dick about with at your peril. You think a dash of violet or vanilla might zazz up this party? You are almost certainly wrong. The one tonic that didn’t fail too badly on this score was Le Tribute, which whacked in the cardamom without being disgusting. But still, not really what I want to add to my gin.

Anyhow. If I missed any blinding tonics (not literally), please shout at me in the comments or on whatever social network takes your fancy, so long as it’s not sodding Pinterest. Much obliged.

A heap of discarded bottle tops from bottles of tonic water

Schweppes 1783 vs Fever Tree Tonic Water

Startled from its decades-long slumber, the leviathan Schweppes has cooked up a new range of premium tonics, called 1783. How do they fare against the upstart Fever Tree? Let’s find out, shall we?

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.

Mini-cans of Schweppes 1783 Crisp Tonic water and Fever Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water

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.

Four tonic water mini cans (Fever Tree and Schweppes 1783) plus a big bottle of Schweppes regular tonic

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.

But.

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.

The Best Tonic for Gin and Tonic

In which an array of nine tonic waters are put through their paces in an attempt to find, once and for all, the tonic to rule them all

This post is part two in a three-post series devoted to the gin and tonic. Part 1 endeavoured to find the best gin. Now, in part 2, the mission is to find the best tonic for gin and tonic…
A closeup of a mini can of Schweppes Tonic

Some time ago, we had the gigantic joust of the gins. Now, at long last, it’s time for the titanic tiff of the tonics.

Oh, fuck, how much of a wanker does that pair of alliterations make me sound? DON’T ANSWER.

Today’s mission, then, is to find out which tonic makes the best gin and tonic. The deal here was pretty much the same as with the gins: taste ’em blind in one joyously ginny lineup. The gin used was my favourite common brand, Tanqueray.

(When I say common, I don’t mean lower class; I mean the kind of gin you’d be able to find at any half-decent UK supermarket or off-license.)

And I make no apologies for the fact that the lineup includes no slimline tonic varieties whatsoever. Because slimline tonic is the corrosive piss of satan.

Anyhow, here — from worst to best — are the results…

The best tonic for gin and tonic — results

9. Schweppes Tonic Water

Oh Schweppes, oh Schweppes. You fell, my boy. You fell bad. You landed on your arse.

I grew up on Schweppes G&Ts. Since my first mini-fridge at university, I always had a rank of yellow-and-silver mini-cans available, on ice. Alas.

Schweppes came out bottom of the taste test. Not marginally; clearly, and by some distance. It has a back-of-the-throat catch that I associate with artificial sweeteners, and a cheap, metallic quality to it. That said, it does also have bite. And it’s sure as hell better than sodding Britvic, which is a heinous tonic I didn’t even bother to include in this tasting. Compared to other tonics (including all the supermarket brands) it made for a sweeter, blander, more tacky gin and tonic. A saccharine blagger of a tonic, a little too confident that his illustrious background will win your admiration. The kind of tonic who hangs around in Chelsea and talks shit all the time.

I should add, though, that even the Schweppes G&T was nice. I criticise it relative to the others, but, Christ, let’s keep a sense of perspective.

8. Marks & Spencer Tonic Water

M&S only seems to do tonic in big 75cl bottles. A silly omission. In a G&T, M&S tonic is inoffensive. It’s got an unexpected bready sort of quality, but not much bite. It’s refreshing, but rather nothingy. A diffidently pleasant tonic without much to say for himself. Probably enjoys listening to Coldplay.

7. Fever Tree Mediterranean

The first of three Fever Tree variants, this character didn’t combine enormously well with Tanqueray. Like M&S’s effort, it sits toward the inoffensive side of the spectrum. It’s also a tad on the sweet side. A slightly wet ex-hippy of a tonic.

6. Waitrose Tonic Water

A gin and tonic with Waitrose tonic is a balanced sort of affair. It too has a slight breadiness, which I rather like. Again, though, there’s a tendency towards oversweetness — though neither as extreme nor as artificial as that of Schweppes. A balanced, middle-of-the-road kind of tonic. Squarely a Radio 2 listener.

5. Fever Tree Naturally Light

Nice. The gin and tonic made with Fever Tree Naturally Light — perhaps unsurprisingly — was less tonicky than most. With a bolshy, no-nonsense gin like Tanqueray, that’s not particularly necessary, but for the more subtle, aromatic, delicate gins (Greenalls Bloom, for instance, or Hendricks), this would be rather a splendid thing. A sensitive, quietly-spoken tonic; a good listener.

Closeup of the yellow label of a mini-bottle of Fentimans Tonic Water4. Fentimans Tonic

Here’s where things start to get interesting. Fentimans makes for a damn good gin and tonic. It’s crammed with flowers (violets!) and citrus. I’d gleefully drink this tonic on its own; in many ways it has more in common with something like bitter lemon than what I think of as tonic — there’s so much goddamn fruit in there. The gin and tonic it makes is delicious, lemony, full of zing and zang. But, I have to say, it’s nothing like my idea of a classic gin and tonic. An unabashed attention-seeker — the kind of tonic that ignores the dress code — but you can’t help liking it, nevertheless.

3. Sainsbury’s Tonic

Wow. This one came in from left-field. The coveted Old Parn Value Award goes to Sainsbury’s for this fantastically strapping tonic. Savoury, bready, confident.  Really far in excess of my expectations of a supermarket own-brand tonic, it’s a diamond in the rough — a good looking charmer in a down-at-heel nightclub.

2. Fever Tree Regular

Yup. It’s good. It’s very good. This is Fever Tree’s most successful tonic for a straightforward G&T. It’s balanced and rather delicious. What keeps it from topping the poll is a slight oversweetness. Far less pronounced than elsewhere, but I’d still prefer a bit less sugar; a bit more bite. Nevertheless, a very fine tonic indeed. Generous, charismatic and considerate.

A bottle of tonic water by 6 o'clock1. 6 o’Clock Tonic

And, finally — just sneaking in ahead of Fever Tree — comes 6 o’Clock Tonic. This is goddamn outstanding. A pity it’s a bugger to find (I’ve so far only been able to locate it in Whole Foods and online), because it has everything I want in a tonic water (including pleasantly minimalist packaging design). Why do I like it? Because it’s dry, it’s grown up. There’s a leafiness to it, a sharp, bracing sting. It’s not even slightly confected, not sugary or patronising. Set a gin and 6 o’Clock Tonic alongside a gin and Schweppes tonic and compare the two. You will be astonished at the difference — at how facile and glib the Schweppes one tastes.

A self-confident tonic with a dry wit and fucking excellent style — and deservedly crowned Old Parn’s best tonic for gin and tonic.