Tonic Water: A conversation with chris Lowder

Chris Lowder is a mixology celebrity, bartender royalty, judge for the Chivas Masters global competition and now Spirits Evangelist for Proof & Co in China. In short, a man as ardent as you can find about cocktails and spirits. 

Originally from Baltimore, his affair with China began when young, learning Chinese in college, he worked as a translator before stepping foot behind the bar. A few late nights later, he was managing the NoMad bars in New York, and that’s just one of many highlights of his career, he’s done it all. His Chinese background gave him the opportunity to work with the solid team at Proof & Co in China and is now part of the exciting F&B revolution in the country. 

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“Guests come back to bars because they want an experience,” concludes Chris. At the end of the day, tonic is meant to make a great cocktail out of it. Having real tonic water back, means that great cocktails are coming our way.

Proof & Co brings to China high-quality boutique spirits, like Plantation rum, Citadelle Gin, East Imperial tonics, and many others. Consulting and education are also a part of Chris’s efforts within the company. No one shares their passion with such excitement as Chris. Today he passes his wisdom to us, with a bittersweet topic, the refreshing story of tonic water. 

“Tonic water actually is an Asian thing, it comes from Asia,” begins Chris. If you peel the bark of the cinchona tree and dry it, you get a white powder that you can scrape out, that’s called quinine, the bitter substance soon was discovered, cures malaria. 

During Asia’s exploration era, traders would come over from the Netherlands, Spain, England, and Portugal. They came across some of today’s most enticing ingredients and combinations as they opened new trade routes.

These were long trips, and sailors, as sailors do, would eventually get scurvy, a disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C. To escape the illness’s debilitating symptoms, they had to add citrus to their diet, “a lime per day” usually dropped into their ration of gin proved to be a delightful remedy. 

Travelers also needed a ration of quinine to protect themselves from life-threatening malaria, transmitted through infected mosquito bites. The Gin & Tonic was born. 

Where there’s demand, there will be supply.

It was the local people who found in the new tonic a business opportunity. Infusing water with quinine, carbonating it and selling it to the ever-thirsty foreigners was the greatest idea since sliced bread. Concoctions evolved as producers steeped new flavors to tonic: lemongrass, lime leaves, cinnamon, and sugar, they all resolved in a completely natural, delicious product that was here to stay.

From a medical necessity to an acquired taste, Europeans back home didn’t want to give up on their G&Ts, but the flavorful ingredients just weren’t available. 

The solution was using artificial flavors, but the quality was never quite the same. Generations passed, and tonic water became an industrial product with a standardized taste. True natural tonic water was lost in time, wasn’t it?

Today almost no one drinks tonic water in Asia, and no Asian producer is making proudly Asian tonic water anymore. The spirit revolution and the rising craftsmanship is shifting all this. Chris remembers his first few years in China, “There was no cocktail scene [between 2008 and 2012], really, there were maybe a handful of bars”. “I came back for the Chivas Masters… and was just blown away by how utterly quickly everything had developed”.

Tonic water also rides the wave of innovation. Proof & Co carries East Imperial Superior Beverages in their portfolio, based in New Zealand is one of few high-quality manufacturers of tonic water today. Their all-natural grapefruit tonic water is raising eyebrows and their Burma tonic water carries the highest quinine levels available in the market. Artisanal tonic water is back and is as good as you think.

“Guests come back to bars because they want an experience,” concludes Chris. At the end of the day, tonic is meant to make a great cocktail out of it. Having real tonic water back, means that great cocktails are coming our way. 

Author: Franco Salzillo, Certified Somm & Wine Writer