When I met up with Jordan Silbert, the creator of Brooklyn-based Q Tonic, I figured we’d chat about how he came up with the idea to make an old-fashioned tonic water, and maybe get a little cocktail advice. I did not expect to be taken on a journey spanning the centuries and crossing the continents before circling back to a backyard soiree in Fort Greene.
Who knew that a beverage whose sole purpose in our world is to be mixed with gin might have such a rich history, touching on centuries of colonial geopolitics, modern wars, science, global economics, and good times with friends? The story of tonic water begins with the Incas, blossoms in 19th century India, is transformed by science during World War Two, shape-shifts again with the introduction of sugar tariffs in the 60s, and idles in mediocrity for a generation before being reborn in Jordan’s kitchen in Fort Greene three years ago.
Nona: So Jordan, what’s the story behind Q Tonic? What inspired you to make an old-school tonic water?
Well, I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After school I was living in California, but after 9/11, I felt like I had to come back. I wanted to help with the recovery, and I wanted to be close to my friends and family.
I packed up all my stuff and drove back, and I started working for a thing called The Alliance for Downtown New York, which manages the Business Improvement District of lower Manhattan. I loved the job, but after a while I realized I had gotten really caught up in it, and I just wasn’t seeing my friends or family nearly as much as I had intended to when I moved back.
I had a beautiful backyard behind our place in Fort Greene, so I decided to have a party one summer night. I emailed all my friends and said, “We don’t see each other as much as we should. Why doesn’t everybody come to my place next week and we’ll have some drinks in the backyard.” Everyone was in. One of my friends wrote back saying they’d just bought a bottle of Tanqueray, and I said, “Great! We’ll all have gin and tonics!”
So flash forward to the night of party when of course I realized I didn’t have any tonic water. I ran over to the corner bodega and grabbed a couple of one liter bottles of Schweppes from the cooler. I guess they weren’t selling a whole lot of tonic water because the bottles were all crusty and the labels were dirty and shredded. I thought, “Whatever – it’s just tonic water.”
Everybody showed up and we were just having an awesome time. It was a beautiful summer night with a warm soft breeze and a full moon, and we were having a great time hanging out and having gin and tonics. At one point, a friend of mine was telling the same stupid story he always tells, and I kind of drifted off and realized that something was bothering me – my teeth and mouth were really sticky. I thought, “That’s weird – it’s like I’ve been drinking soda or something.”
So while he was telling his story, I picked up the bottle of Schweppes and started looking at the ingredients. I was like, hmm…25 grams of high fructose corn syrup? Natural and/or artificial flavors? Sodium benzoate? Really!? I thought tonic water was just some sort of naturally bitter water!
My friend Sara was drinking Sprite. I asked her if I could see the can. While John continued with the story, I started comparing the ingredients in the tonic water and in the Sprite, and they were basically identical – the only difference was in those natural and/or artificial flavors, and in the color of the bottle!
For some reason, the idea just stuck in my head. After a few more drinks I just kept thinking, “What a wonderful night! The friends are great, the gin is great…” I looked up and saw the Tanqueray bottle there just kind of glowing beautifully in the moonlight, and then I noticed the bottles of tonic water and I thought, “The only thing that isn’t great is that crappy tonic water!” And I just kind of put my finger to the sky and said, “I’m going to make a better tonic water!”
The next afternoon when my head cleared I started doing some research. It turned out that the big soda companies had pulled the real quinine out of the tonic water in the 50s, replacing it with synthetic flavor substitutes. When the U.S. raised tariffs on cane sugar in the 60s, they replaced sugar with high fructose corn syrup, and that was it – that’s what tonic water has been ever since – synthetic flavors and corn syrup.
So I thought, “I’m gonna do this.” I went online and ordered some real cinchona tree bark, which is what’s used to make real quinine. A few days later, a bag of bark showed up and I started boiling up the bark to extract the quinine. My roommate kept freaking out because he thought we were going to get busted for running a meth lab in our house – I had pots and pans full of boiling liquids everywhere.
I became that guy…whenever I was invited to a dinner party or away for a weekend, I’d show up with my bag of bark, boil down the quinine, put it into sugar to make a kind of quinine syrup, mix it with seltzer and some good gin, and there you go – homemade gin and tonics. And they were pretty good – people really liked them.
Eventually the bubbles drove me to take it to the next level – they just weren’t as tight and crisp as I wanted. This was all a total hobby at this point, but I found a little soda plant up in Massachussetts who said they’d make a hundred cases for me.
I just thought it would be fun – I wanted to drink it and I wanted my friends to drink it, so I made this prototype at the soda plant and I really liked it. The bubbles were just right and the flavor was great, so I made one hundred cases.
When I got them home I posted about it on Chowhound and Egullet. I said, “Hey, I made this tonic water! Who wants to try it?” A couple of people responded. One guy named Jim said, “Yeah – bring it down to the Tavern. I’d love to try it.” It turned out to be Jim Meehan from Gramercy Tavern, who went on to open PDT. Another guy who wrote back was Sasha from Milk & Honey which is like the grande dame of places researching and making classic American cocktails. He said, “Sure – bring it by the bar!”
Long story short – they both loved it and they each wanted ten cases. I thought, “Uhhhh, OK, I have a hundred cases in my basement. I’ll have to borrow my dad’s car. I’ll have to have him come with me and sit in the car while I load and unload it…and Oh My God what do I do if they want more!? But…sure!”
So those were my first sales. I hadn’t even really been thinking about selling it at all. A few weeks later, Plymouth Gin tracked me down. Someone from their marketing department called me and said, “Can we speak with someone in your marketing department?” Of course I was sitting there in my underwear or something on my couch and I was like, “Ummm, sure, I can help you.”
Turns out they were sponsoring this Taste of The Nation event at Rockefeller Center. They were trying to come up with an esoteric cocktail, and one of their guys had had the Q Tonic at Little Branch, a sister bar to Milk & Honey, and thought it was great. So they asked if I wanted to co-sponsor the event and pour some tonic water with them.
Well, it was this really fancy event. Chefs like Tom Colicchio and Alice Waters were doing small plates, and people paid like $1,500 for the tasting menu. Florence Fabricant’s husband was there and he tried our tonic water. I guess he and Florence really like gin and tonics. Next thing I knew Q Tonic was on the cover of the Dining In section of The Times and suddenly hundreds of places around the country were calling to place orders. I had to say ‘no’ to everybody but a few well-know restaurants in the city that I’d heard of, and I thought they wouldn’t go through too much so I’d have time to figure out how to make a lot more.
Next thing I knew my best friend quit his job and we started figuring out how to make a lot more and how to start an actual business. That was three years ago and we’ve just been running nonstop ever since.
Nona: Wow – sounds like a wild ride. Do you know anything about the history of tonic water? Who originally came up with it?
Yeah – tonic water was invented back in the 1800s by a bunch of drunk British army officers in India. Quinine, which is the main ingredient in tonic water, was an anti-malarial medicine. In the 1800s, the Brits used to require all their troops in far-flung, malaria-ridden colonies to take a shot of quinine every morning to keep them healthy.
By that point, there wasn’t really a war on in India, so some officers thought, “It kind of sucks waking up every morning and drinking this bitter medicine. Why don’t we pour some gin in it and mix it with soda water to make a nice cocktail that we can enjoy in the afternoons on the verandah!” That’s the short version of how gin and tonics were born.
They became very popular among the officers’ corps in India, and when soldiers would come back to the U.K, they started ordering them in their gentlemen’s clubs. Doing so showed that they’d been in the army in India and were tough guys as a result. It caught on and pretty quickly became the quintessential drink of the British Empire.
Quinine originally came from the Andes. It’s made from the bark of the cinchona tree which grows on the slopes of the Andes in Peru. It was in such high demand as Europeans colonized more and more tropical regions where malaria was endemic that eventually it was totally over-harvested. At one point cinchona bark was literally worth its weight in gold. If you needed quinine, you’d go to a market, put a bag of bark on one side of the scale and a bag of gold on the other and when they balanced out, you had a deal.
Some enterprising Europeans eventually took a few of the remaining trees out of Peru and started cultivating cinchona in colonies all over the world. By the time World War II rolled around, about 95% of the world’s quinine was coming from Indonesia. Indonesia also had a lot of oil. Japan did not have much oil, so they invaded Indonesia for oil to power their war machine. They got the quinine too.
So the allies had a problem – they needed a source of quinine for their troops. They did a little mini-Manhattan Project and came up with a synthetic substitute that they could give to their soldiers in North Africa and the South Pacific to ward off malaria.
After the war, the country became kind of obsessed with ‘better living through modern science.’ The big soda companies making tonic water had a decision to make: “We can either make quinine from the bark of trees grown halfway around the world, or we can make it in a laboratory in New Jersey!” Of course, they chose the lab in New Jersey, and that was the end of real quinine in tonic water.
In the 60’s the government raised tariffs on cane sugar, and the big soda companies all switched from sugar to high-fructose corn syrup. As a result, the only tonic water that was available in America — for all intents and purposes, until Q Tonic came along — was effectively bitter flavored soda with as much high fructose corn syrup as Sprite and a bunch of synthetic and artificial flavors.
Nona: Good story! Who knew? So tell us more about Q Tonic – how do you source your ingredients? What makes it different from the other stuff?
Real quinine is what really makes Q Tonic special. Our quinine comes from real trees growing in Peru. They’ve started cultivating cinchona again. It’s not just used for tonic – it’s used to treat muscle cramps and circulation issues, so a real market for it has emerged again. It took me a year to find the right person with the right quinine.
The history of quinine is really interesting too. It’s an alkaloid found in the bark of the cinchona tree, which was named after the Dutchess of Chinchon – a Spanish princess or governess or something, who got malaria back in the 1500s in Peru. The legend says that they tried leeches and all the modern medicines of the time and nothing was working. Eventually, they went to the Incas and pleaded for help. The Incas told them to take the bark of what they called the quina-quina tree, which means ‘tree of trees’ in Quechua, and take the bark and boil it up and do this and that and to have her drink this potion at dawn and dusk every day for thirty days. Miraculously, she was cured of malaria.
And so of course, that discovery allowed the Spanish to stay healthier, which allowed them to kill the Incas faster, which allowed them to change the name of the tree to her name, from the quina-quina tree to the cinchona tree.
The word Quinine comes from that original Incan name for the tree – quina-quina. It’s an alkaloid found in the bark, which means a salt found in the bark. I don’t know if you remember any of your high school chemistry, but they way you extract an alkaloid is to use something like lye to pull it out and isolate it. There’s no such thing as organic lye, so there’s no way to organically extract it.
The trees are grown on small farms on the slopes of the Andes. It’s as naturally and traditionally produced as it can get.
Our other real trick is that we use a dash of organic agave instead of sugar or corn syrup. That means that it’s a lot better for you, but more importantly that it tastes a lot better. Instead of giving you a big blast of sugar, it’s got a soft, gentle, round sweetness that draws through the palette and that gives a nice kind of depth to the cocktail when you mix it with a good spirit.
We used to get our agave from a health food store – I’d buy it off the shelf. Now we’re buying lots of organic blue agave from the Jalisco region of Mexico.
The thing that excites me most about Q Tonic is that it allows you to really taste the subtleties of a good gin or vodka. In the factory-made tonic waters, the sweetness of the corn syrup masks the subtle nuances of the spirit. If you’re cooking spicy food and it gets too spicy, the secret is to just throw a little sugar in to deaden the heat. That’s what sugar does to flavors. Taking the sugar out of our tonic allows you to actually taste those subtle flavors. A gin and tonic with Hendrick’s gin should taste very different than one with Plymouth or Tanqueray. Q Tonic allows those subtle differences to really stand out.
I really think Q Tonic adds some unique elements to a cocktail. It has all the effervescence you need, but we also have that bitter note and the agave which has a long, drawn-out sweetness. So Q Tonic adds both a vertical and horizontal element to cocktails and I really haven’t found anything else that does that in a similar way. There’s a cocktails page on our site and those recipes are all great.
Nona: How’s the business growing? Are you having fun?
It’s going very well. The question we’re struggling with now is how commercialized we’re going to get. You can only learn a lot of this stuff through experience. There’s a quote by Proust that says, “We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
Growing a business is hard. You have to go through the process and get punched in the face five times a day and get up and do it again and again. We’re getting to the point where we’re now more broadly available, which is really exciting, but we started at just a few places – Gramercy Tavern, Milk & Honey, Little Branch and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
My parents took me to Blue Hill for my thirtieth birthday and I brought a bottle of Q Tonic and said, “Hey! I’d like someone to try this!” And they tried it, they loved it, and a couple of weeks later I was delivering a few cases in my girlfriend’s (now fiancé’s) VW bug convertible up there. Then we expanded to Dean & Deluca, Gourmet Garage, and Whole Foods. And then Blue Apron and Union Market – all sort of gourmet stores in New York City. And now we’re available in all fifty states. Even Australia has Q Tonic.
It’s all absolutely amazing. You know, I had this idea after too many gin and tonics one night, and now someone in Australia can drink my tonic water. It’s just so amazing when I take a step back and think about it.
Nona: What are some of your favorite things about Brooklyn?
I grew up in New York, and what I love about Brooklyn is that it feels like Manhattan used to. There are different types of people doing different types of things and everybody is incredibly intense about it. It’s just awesome to have all these other food entrepreneurs around us all the time. I remember doing demos with McClure’s Pickles down in Dumbo and now they’re doing terrific. So it’s really neat to be part of this community of people who are doing world class things with food and drink.
The other nice thing about Brooklyn is there seems to be a real value put on value. On something that actually does taste better, and isn’t necessarily creating value because it’s the sexiest or newest or trendiest, but because it actually tastes better, which is really neat. You can see that the food entrepreneurs and the restaurants that are making it tend to be the ones that have really, really good food. There’s something incredibly invigorating about being part of that.
And I think it’s just a fun place to be – I think my favorite thing on the planet is riding my bike around Red Hook on a warm summer night – getting some food at Fairway and getting a bottle of wine a Dry Dock, and drinking it out at the park right off Coffey Street…I don’t know how life gets better than that.
Nona: The only thing I would add to that would be a mandatory stop for a drink at Sunnys.
Absolutely – if it’s open! I have a hard time figuring out when Sunny’s is open.
Another one is catching a concert at Prospect Park Bandshell in summer– sitting just outside the fence with some friends, having a picnic…as you can tell, I really like the summer. And it just doesn’t get much better than summer in Brooklyn.