Gin and Tonic with a Twist of Empire

Summer as an adult is kind of a downer. You have to keep going to work, you have to pay to go the pool and people kind of look at you funny if you set up a sprinkler in the driveway of your apartment complex.

But there is one major perk to being over 21 during the summer months: Gin and tonics. Gin and tonics with lime. Gin and tonics with cucumber. Gin and tonics with a splash of cranberry—trust me you’re gonna love it.

But gin and tonic isn’t just the #SWF summer drink of choice. It’s a drink with a storied — and controversial — past. It’s a drink that once made Winston Churchill (no newbie to the drinking game) claim, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

Ah, Empire. Gather round, children, pour yourselves a drink, and I’ll tell you about a time when empire was more than just a must-watch TV drama on FOX.

There was once a time when a small, seafaring nation decided it wanted to own … everything. How a country of 5 million blokes with bad teeth took over India, parts of Africa and the Americas for centuries is a topic of much debate in historical circles. (Spoiler alert: money, and a ruthless desire for more of it, helped.)

But there are some problems money can’t solve — and for a long time, malaria was one of them. One of the downsides to colonizing tropical and subtropical regions is all those pesky bugs, which were killing soldiers and civilians alike.

The Spanish, another powerful colonizing nation, had discovered that the bark of certain trees could be used to cure malaria. The English were the first to realize it could also prevent malaria.

The Brits began to corner the market on cinchona bark, using upwards of 700 tons a year just to keep settlers and soldiers in British India alive. But it wasn’t really the bark that saved them. It was the active ingredient, quinine, a bitter powder best enjoyed mixed with water and sugar into a kind of … tonic.

As these tonics went from homebrew to brand name (Schweppes, anyone?), creative Brits began to mix their daily medicine with the drink of the day. Much like you probably take a shot of tequila with your Claritin, they began to mix gin with their tonic.

Thus, a drink was born — and thousands of Brits survived to colonize another day. For over a century, G+T’s were the most effective antimalarial on the market (though the G was optional.) No matter why you were there, outsiders hoping to enter the places where malaria festered had to have access to quinine.

That proved problematic as recently as World War II, when the Japanese captured the island of Java. Java was the largest provider of quinine and suddenly, more Allied troops were dying from malaria than from Japanese bullets. The United States procured a synthetic anti-malarial that wasn’t nearly as effective and had terrible side effects — including, it was rumored, impotence. The troops wouldn’t take it.

So the United States struck a deal with countries that had cinchona trees, which created quinine. The “Cinchona Mission” offered exclusive purchasing rights to all cinchona bark in exchange for agricultural development aid from the U.S. From 1940 to 1945, American botanists were sent to Central and South America, hunting for cinchona trees.

They airlifted over 12 million tons of the bark back to the U.S., which sadly wasn’t enough to save many of the soldiers in the Pacific. But it wasn’t all a loss — while these botanists were dealing with altitude sickness, warring tribes, clothing-rotting humidity and at least one heart attack death, scientists back in air conditioned labs in the U.S. were improving synthetic antimalarials to the standard we use today.

Which means, after centuries of serving their country, gin and tonics (and Cinchona-focused botanists) can retire from active duty. The drink is no longer an essential part of any colonizers medicine cabinet, and no, you can’t skip work on Monday just because you overmedicated on Sunday. No one likes a colonizer.

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