In the beginning...
A few years ago I threw a party in aid of International Gin Day. An assorted selection of carefully chosen guests turned up, each holding a different bottle of gin. The intention was to explore gin and explore this latest gin renaissance, but it led to the rediscovery of Nelly Tickner's tonic cordial.
One of my good friends worked on behalf of Hendrick's gin promoting them across social and interactive media, it was she who informed us that the spirits market was in the midst of a craft gin frenzy, and had brought along some samples from Sacred Gin, Jam Jar gin and a local bottle of Silent Pool gin to prove the point.
We quickly worked our way through the various gins, mixing cocktails, adorning them with imaginative garnishes, and generally getting to grips with these botanically enhanced gins. To be honest, I have always been more of a whisky or rum drinker; I had fondness for quality tequilas and, through some time working in eastern europe, a respect for good vodka notwithstanding a fear of poorly cut "street" vodka, but gin had rarely been my go to spirit.
And so, from a gin soaked garden party a new appreciation was born, as was a Gin Club.
As more and more craft and botanical gins started hitting the market we saw an opportunity. Not to get into the already crowded gin production space, but instead to produce a mainstay in the consumption of gin, indian tonic water.
The origin of tonic
Tonic waters originate from South America, where the bark of the cinchona tree was steeped to produce a quinine rich tea. Its medicinal properties were discovered by the Quechua peoples of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador who cultivated the cinchona tree to be used as a muscle relaxant to abate shivering due to cold temperatures and symptoms of malaria. It was because of the medicinal effects of the quinine that the cinchona tree was to become known as the "fever tree". These medicinal traits of quinine in the cinchona bark were brought to europe by Jesuit priests in the 16th century, but by the turn of the 19th century cinchona was being cultivated across asia, mainly by the British in the British Raj in India, and by the Dutch in Java, present day indonesia. It was in the British Raj that Gin finally met its tonic. Taken as a relief for the symptoms of malaria, the incredibly bitter tasting cinchona bark was steeped and heavily sweetened, then mixed with gin, a combination we can only assume made the ingestion of large quantities of quinine quite palatable.
The big idea
Our thinking was fairly simple, people are buying more and more of these hand crafted premium gins with subtle flavour profiles and carefully selected botanicals, in most cases these were being mixed with standard pre-mixed tonic waters. If the consumer was particularly considerate about this then they would be opting, as we did, for a fever tree or a fentimans tonic, but even with these you would often lose the subtlety of flavours. We proved this a number of times with our gin club, as our horrified members convinced that their selected winner in a blind G&T taste test was their favorite Dobsons, or Sacred, only to find that it was a good old Gordons and fever tree.
I came across a couple of tonic syrups whilst working in the US and knew of some bars that made their own tonic waters. If you haven't come across one of these syrups, they were fairly commonplace in the 50's and 60's where soda siphons were an essential fixture to any drinks cabinet. The benefit of a tonic syrup is that they give you the opportunity to balance the flavours in the drink you are mixing. Typically they are diluted with soda water, ideally from a soda siphon to be traditional, but are also used as a tincture in cocktails. Had any of these tonic syrups been readily available in the UK then that would have probably satisfied us, but they were not. Just how hard, we wondered, would it be to make our own tonic syrup?
So we set aside a few days, did some research, and started mixing recipes. After a couple of unsatisfactory attempts, I happened to mention to my mother about our little experiments. "oh!" she exclaimed, as if this kind of thing was normal in every family, "...your grandma Nelly used to make tonic, I think I have her recipe somewhere....". We were not expecting that!
A bit of history
Nelly's recipe had been in the family for some years, and most likely originated through a great uncle George who was partner in a brewery in the Surrey town of Guildford. Lascelles, Tickner & Co. made a variety of beers, porters, and liquors, but also had good business producing mineral waters, tonics, cordials and carbonated soft drinks until they were bought out by Holroyd & Healy in 1927.
We made a few notable adjustments to Nelly's original recipe, replacing the quinine sulphate and instead opting to steep cinchona bark as we found that it does produce a more rounded earthy bitterness. We replaced the refined sugar from the original recipe with a more subtle agave syrup. Whilst this is a premium, low GI, option for sweetening, we found that it beautifully balances the bitterness of the cinchona without drowning the other flavours in the way we found with regular sugars. Nelly Tickner tonics are made with fresh locally sourced ingredients where possible, and we add traditional citrus fruits and lemongrass, and there is a little honey in there to round it off and as a tribute to Nelly.
How to drink Nelly Tickner
Since creating Nelly Tickner tonic cordial, we are constantly testing it with our favourite cocktail serves, and found that it adds unique colour and depth to most drinks and cocktails, some of which can be found on the recipe page. In addition to alcohol, and because Nelly Tickner is a cordial, it is also a very refreshing non-alcoholic drink, simply dilute with water or soda, and add some ice.
However, we recommend that you experiment for yourself and add the amount of Nelly that suits you, as Nelly herself used to say, "I don't know much, but I know what i like, and what I like is this". We never really knew what she meant by that.