Tonic Boom: Every Major Tonic Water, Ranked
When ordering a Gin & Tonic at a bar, you’re typically at the whim of whatever low-octane quinine gunk happens to be loaded into the soda gun. Your home G&T game, however, is a different story. But while a few years ago your tonic choices essentially came down to Schweppes or Canada Dry, today a dazzling buffet of artisanal, small batch, cost-infused tonics are competing for your mixer dollar, each promising to elevate your G&T to new heights of quininic pleasure.
Now I’m no British military officer stationed in India, but my habit of sipping tonic straight made me uniquely suited to test eight of the most popular variations on the 19th century’s top malaria cure. My test subjects ranged from grocery store generics to artisan lemongrass-infused elixirs. Since tonic started out as medicine, you’d logically assume that drinking a whole lot of it should have made me feel healthier, smarter and more attractive.
This was not my experience. I feel a little sweaty, I can barely tie my shoes (though admittedly that’s normal), and I’m still only extremely attractive (according to my girlfriend who I made up just for this story). The malaria lab results aren’t back yet, but my lack of abdominal pain means that the sweating is probably unrelated to a mosquito-borne illness. Most likely it’s a post-traumatic response to the sheer volume of offensive liquid I consumed in the process of this taste test.
My most surprising finding was that these fancy bitter sodas are all surprisingly different from one another. And that means the resulting cocktails you make from each one will be quite different. I’ve ranked them from worst to best based on carbonation, flavor, and mixability (each factor individually scored on a scale from one to ten). Here are my findings — I hope they help the next time you’re in the mixer aisle.
8. Q TonicCarbonation: 2
Twisting off the cap makes a satisfying pop, like uncorking a bottle of Champagne. Unfortunately there was no corresponding bubble eruption — brought back painful memories of my D+ grade on an elementary school volcano science project.
The label lists “natural bitters” as a primary ingredient, which makes sense because no food scientist would possibly want to create this flavor. If dust, ash, and rotting lemon peel had an orgy, this tastes like the stain left on the bed.
Although the sleek clear packaging and logo were clearly designed by someone wearing trendy eyeglasses, this is one of the least palatable liquids that I’ve ever consumed. You don't want to put this anywhere near your mouth, let alone in alcohol.
7. ZeviaCarbonation: 3
A flash in the pan. Huge head on the pour, but the bubbles quickly fled the scene of the crime.
So this is what zero calories tastes like! Even non-GMO loving, sugar-free types should steer clear. Notes of magic marker, freshly cut grass, and Stevia. By the time it warmed to room temperature, it was positively gag-inducing. I think my garbage disposal swore at me when I poured it into my sink.
Pouring this into gin is akin to suffocating your most fragile auntie under a sugar-free pillow — a violent crime that should require mandatory sentencing. Not recommended.
6. SchweppesCarbonation: 4
Fleeting. Like a quick side-hug from an old friend, except in your mouth. At first it’s refreshing, but then you realize you deserve better.
Carpet cleaner. Just carpet cleaner.
While this is what makes otherwise intelligent people hate Gin & Tonics, it's still more palatable than some of the alternatives. Begs for a lime slice that’s begun to brown around the edges.
5. White RockCarbonation: 2
The liter bottle of White Rock gave but a meek whimper on opening, with the carbonation level offering similar timidity. If these bubbles were a politician's hands, they would be Donald Trump's.
The 7-10 split of tonics, White Rock manages to be both exceedingly bitter and overwhelmingly sweet at the same time. Redolent of stale sweet tea.
Though this shouldn't be sipped straight, with its intense polarity of flavor it'd be right at home in a tiny plastic cup alongside a budget gin.
4. Canada DryCarbonation: 4
Starts with a satisfying bubbly splash, but flattens quickly. Reminiscent of a swimming pool fart.
High fructose corn syrup may be America’s national pastime, but looks like the Canadians have beaten us at our own game. The fructose in this corn syrup is extra high. Hints of Maraschino cherry. Diabetics beware.
Will help a low quality gin go down easy, but bear in mind that a splash of Canada Dry is probably equivalent to a half ounce of simple syrup. Still, it’s a perfectly acceptable mixer in a pinch. Bonus points for having a name that doubles as the title of a Drake diss track.
3. FentimansCarbonation: 6
Fentimans comes off a little flat at first, but on close inspection, the bubbles have as much girth as any on this list. This is the sports bra of tonic waters.
Fentimans contains lemongrass, which some might consider cheating, but it gives it a satisfying sourness without an overly bitter kick. Could be confused for a high quality hard lemonade (if such a thing existed).
Fentimans presents us with a paradox: the complexity of its flavor doesn’t work well with more botanical-forward gins. In addition, its lemon flavors battle the G&T’s traditional lime garnish, creating an awkward clash of citrus. While this isn’t ideal for a textbook Gin & Tonic, Fentimans would be a real asset to a Spanish Gin & Tonic buffet and would be interesting with creative garnishes.
2. Whole Foods 365Carbonation: 10
By far the most bubbly on the list, 365 gave off a sizzling hiss for at least 60 seconds after opening. I burped after just one sip.
I’ll admit, the purple can might have subliminally affected my taste buds. Still, I’m pretty sure this tastes like Prince's living room. A little bit funky, darkly sweet, a vague aftertaste of jasmine and hints of women out of my league.
This will make a cheaper gin shine, but the botanical flavors aren't heavy enough to steal the stage from more complex spirits. A solid budget mixer, although any savings realized will undoubtedly be spent on impulse-buying kale chips and small-batch granola.
1. Fever TreeCarbonation: 7
The bubbles take a backseat here, still, there's enough fizziness to send Charlie dangerously close to the Chocolate Factory’s industrial fan system. Review your safety regulations, Wonka!
It's instantly apparent that this is a premium tonic. There are genuine fruit flavors, a kick of raspberry, a phantom zest of lime, and a slight aftertaste of potpourri. But an expensive potpourri that should come with a government warning label and not be sold to anyone under the age of 18.
Despite its intensity of flavor, Fever Tree leaves plenty of room for your chosen gin to shine. Layered onto a more complex spirit like St. George Botanivore, this will amplify the experience rather than fight with it. And in a pinch, it could easily serve as very effective lipstick for a piggish well-gin.