Malaria is a terrible disease. Caused by a parasitic protozoa, it is spread to humans throughout the tropics via mosquito bites. In 2010, the WHO estimates that there were 219 million cases worldwide, resulting in 660,000 deaths. Even with modern medicine, prevention remains difficult, but during the early phases of the imperial era, this disease was so fearsome that European powers knew that they could not successfully colonize the tropics without some means of treating it. Another set of travellers, Jesuit missionaries, also appreciated the need to confront malaria and turned to indigenous populations for wisdom. It turns out that the Quechua people of Ecuador had an effective way of coping with malaria. At the first sign of fever and chills from malaria, the Quechua would use the bark of the indigenous Cinchona tree, often referred to as the “fever tree.” This Cinchona tree is one of the few plants that naturally contains quinine, which, for reasons still not fully understood, helps kill the protozoa responsible for malaria. Jesuit Brother Agostino Salumbrino brought this bark back to Europe in 1632, explaining its utility in preventing and treating malaria, where it quickly became known as “Jesuit’s Bark.”
The power of this discovery was not lost on colonial imperialists. They knew how crucial it was to keep their troops in fit and fighting shape. For years, they had already ensured that ships embarking on long journeys had an ample store of limes -- hence the name limeys for sailors -- to ward off scurvy, another disease that could wreak havoc on colonists. After learning of this Jesuit’s Bark, they developed and then mass-produced a tonic, which soldiers took daily to keep malaria at bay. However, nobody likes to take their medicine, and British soldiers stationed in India during the 19th century were no exception. The Cinchona tonic was very bitter and, while adding lime juice may have helped somewhat, it wasn’t until some enterprising British officers began mixing in gin that the concoction truly began to sing.
So, that Gin and Tonic you may find yourself enjoying at a Labor Day BBQ is not just a good summer drink, but an interesting example of how history can create flavor. Now that it is drank for pleasure rather than necessity, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some good gins. Beefeater is, of course, the standard-bearer, as it hails from Britain and has the classic juniper profile. But American gins such as St. George Spirits’ Terroir and OOLA are both great options that add a new twist to a timeless classic. As for the tonic, and to go full circle, Fever Tree makes a really good mixing partner.