Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Wisdom Wednesday: A Short History of Quinine
As a follow-up to Monday’s blog, I thought you might enjoy some history about quinine. Legend has it that the bark of the fever tree was first used by the Spanish in the early 1630s when it was given to the Countess of Chinchon, who had contracted malaria (know colloquially as the ‘fever’) while living in Peru. The Countess recovered and the healing properties of the fever tree were passed to Europe.
It was imported to Europe under the name ‘Jesuits Powder’ which proved a very poor selling strategy in Protestant England. Even when Charles II in 1679 was cured of the ‘fever’ its popularity was not assured as its use remained the secret of his physician (Robert Talbor).
However, the healing power of this remarkable tree only became world renowned in the 1820’s when officers of the British Army in India, in an attempt to ward off malaria, mixed quinine (the extract from the bark of the fever tree) with sugar and water, creating the first Indian Tonic Water.
It was made more palatable when they added a little expedient of gin to the mixture. The original gin and tonic was thus born, and soon became the archetypal drink of the British Empire, the origins of which were firmly planted in the fever tree.
Medical historians claim that the British lost India primarily because the British forces were too drunk from the daily ritual of drinking gin and tonic to effectively fight.
Colonialism produced a huge demand for the bark of the fever tree. In the 1850s the East India Company alone spend 100,000 pounds annually on the bark, but it still brought in nowhere nearly enough to keep the colonists healthy. The answer was to try and cultivate fever trees in the colonies. This initiative inspired intrepid plant hunters across Europe to risk all and travel to South America to harvest these most valuable seeds. The Englishman, Richard Spruce, brought back seeds from Ecuador, which were subsequently grown in India and Ceylon, but they turned out to be of a species that was relatively poor in quinine. Using the wrong species of herb or wrong part of the plant remains a significant issue in herbology today with up to 80% of commercial products being ineffective as a result of this practice.
The Dutch had more luck with seeds provided by Charles Ledger, a British explorer in Peru. The British had no interest after their experience with Spruce, so Ledger approached the Dutch. Ledger’s seeds yielded up to eight times more quinine and subsequently Holland nearly monopolized the market.
The Germans were the first to synthesize quinine in 1918. They were the great chemists of the world, making vast sums of money producing colored dyes for fabric. The money generated from chemistry financed World War 1 for Germany and their chemical knowledge gave them a distinct advantage in modern warfare.
Today the vast majority of tonic water is made synthetically based on the German methods. And, as I mentioned in Monday’s blog, some brands do not even contain any quinine while others add high fructose corn syrup.
The Bottom Line:
If you want to try a great, natural tonic water and taste a bit of history, ask for Fever-Tree tonic water. They still use the bark of the fever tree as their source of natural quinine and it comes in several flavors.