What is cinchona bark?
Cinchona: the bitter bark
At first glance it looks like cinnamon or cassia, but you’ll soon find that cinchona bark doesn’t have that spicy sweet fragrance. Actually, cinchona has almost no scent at all – just an earthy ‘tree bark’ sort of smell. But it has an unmistakable flavour. And at one time, it was so highly valued, this bark was worth more than gold!
Cinchona bark is the natural source of quinine, that very distinctive bitter flavour that defines tonic. Tonic makers can use artificial quinine, cinchona extract or cinchona powder to get that taste, but we prefer to infuse the tree bark, just as they did in British India back in the 1820s when tonic was first invented to combat malaria. We find the bark makes for a more mellow bitterness, requiring less sugar to balance it out. It’s also old-school authentic, and we’re all over that.
For many centuries, quinine was the primary treatment for malaria ̶ this is what made it so valuable.
Legend has it that in the 1600s, the Spanish wife of a viceroy of Peru, the Countess of Chinchón, contracted malaria. She was ‘cured’ after taking the advice of the indigenous Quechuan healers to consume some of the bark, and in time, botanists named the bark after her: cinchona. The Quechua knew the bark as a muscle relaxant, using it to relieve shivering when it was cold in winter.
The classic gin and tonic came about when the British Army colonised India in the mid-1800s and malaria was rife. They mixed their medicinal ‘tonic’ with gin and sugar to alleviate the bitter flavour of the quinine. Back then, tonic took the form of a tincture, or concentrated syrup, mixed with flat water, and then fizzy water, using soda siphons. Then with the industrial revolution came pre-mixed tonic water, and syrups became less popular.
We love the bitterness of cinchona bark
While cinchona has been used as a muscle relaxant, to treat gastric disorders, cramps, fever and general aches and pains, our main reasons for using the bark are its authenticity and inimitable flavour profile. Quite frankly, we think it makes our tonic syrup taste damn good, with or without gin! The colour it imparts also makes for a pretty drink.