The Imperial Cocktail

How the gin and tonic became the British Empire’s secret weapon.

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The gin and tonic is having a moment. From Spain—where gin and tonics are practically the national drink—to our summer shores, the venerable G-and-T is everywhere. House-made tonic is on the menu in restaurants from coast to coast, and in many fine bars gin and tonics come in dozens of varieties, with special tonics and fruit garnishes matched to distinctive artisanal gins.

Of course, a lot of classic cocktails are enjoying a resurgence—part Mad Men, part the boom in distinctive small-batch spirits, and part the waning fad of faux speakeasies with handcrafted bitters and bartenders in arm garters chipping away at blocks of ice.

But the gin and tonic is different. For one, it requires no unusual ingredients, and it’s very simple to make. More interestingly, the gin and tonic has a storied history that places it at the heart of the largest empire the world has ever known. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the gin and tonic was as essential a weapon for the British Empire as the Gatling gun. No less an authority on imperial power than Winston Churchill once declared, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

What was the source of the gin and tonic’s great power? As is sometimes said of tequila, the gin and tonic is not just a drink; it’s a drug.

The story begins with the jewel of the British Empire: India. British India comprised both more and less than modern-day India. More, in that it included large parts of what are today Pakistan and Bangladesh. Less, in that much of India under the British Raj was quasi-independent, in so-called princely states that were nominally sovereign but largely under England’s thumb. India was so important to the empire that in 1876 Queen Victoria added the moniker “Empress of India” to her title. Her successors continued that practice right up till 1948, under George VI (he of The King’s Speech fame).

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