Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tonic Water Taste Test

As a kid, I loved bitter and sour beverages. I can remember Sunday dinners at my parents' house - while my Dad and Grandpa had a "scotch and soda" (which to my Grandpa really meant scotch on the rocks) I would often be treated to a sour mix, OJ and grenadine drink. Tonic water was another treat that I would have occasionally. While many bristle at the thought of drinking tonic water straight, I actually rather enjoy the balance of citrus, sweetness and bitterness that can be found in a good bottle.

In the summer, a gin and tonic made with Beefeater gin (I prefer the crispness of Beefeater to the full-bodied character of Tanqueray) with a slice of lemon or lime (I vacillate between the two or sometimes even add a small squeeze of each) is a great thirst quencher and really sets the mood for a mid-late afternoon patio party.

For this post, I assembled a rather large group of tonic waters, ranging from my previous gold standard, Schweppes, to some pricey newcomers boasting artisanal ingredients and manufacturing methods, such as Fever Tree, Q tonic, Fentiman's and Stirrings. Below is a listing of the nine tonics selected.

1. Hansens
2. Schweppes
3. Whole Foods 365
4. Q Tonic
5. White Rock
6. Stirrings
7. Fentimans
8. Schweppes Indian Tonic (Holland)
9. Fever Tree

Note: Canada Dry is intentionally absent. After much experimentation, I have determined that I have a strong preference Schweppes (domestic) to Canada Dry which has a sweet, cloying flavor and not enough bitterness. For that reason it didn't make it to the finals.

All tonics were packaged in small glass bottles except Hansen's and 365 which were served in a can. Schweppes (domestic) and White Rock had plastic screw-caps while all the other bottles had a classic crown-type bottle cap. Purists tend to like the small glass bottles and believe that they offer superior carbonation.

The tonics were tasted blind by Rob and me. Following are our tasting notes and scores. Where tonics were close in score, I attempted to differentiate by tasting back to back to confirm the ranking.

1. Hansen's
Matt - light citrus, not much bitterness, medium sweetness. Score - 88
Rob - Unctuous, full-bodied. Could be a little more carbonated. Medium bitterness, not very sweet. Score - 90

2. Schweppes
Matt - light flavors. Some bitterness. Sweeter than #1 but less flavorful. Score - 87
Rob - Not much on the opening taste, but then finishes with a bitter attack. Good carbonation. Score - 85

3. Whole Foods 365
Matt - Citrusy, sweet, not much bitterness, though. Nice flavors. Score 86
Rob - Sweeter with light bitterness. Not super flavorful, but pleasant. Score - 89

4. Q Tonic
Matt - Not much going on here - not sweet, some bitterness. Score - 85
Rob - Very little tonic flavor. Some astringent bitterness on the finish. Almost soda water. Score - 75

5. White Rock
Matt - Sweet with some bitterness. Not a lot of citrus, but a decent overall balance of flavors. Score - 89
Rob - Light opening with a pleasantly bitter finish. Score - 87

6. Stirrings
Matt - Light flavors, medium bitterness. Some soapiness. Light sweetness. Score - 86
Rob - Light. Not much flavor. Short finish. Score - 80

7. Fentiman's
Matt - Full-flavored, medium bitterness. Medium+ sweetness with a lot of pleasant citrus notes. Score - 90
Rob - Full-bodied. Definite citrus flavors. Finishes with bitterness. Complex. Could be a bit more carbonated. Score - 91

8. Schweppes Indian Tonic (Holland)
Matt - Wow! Complex flavors, nice fizz, nice bitterness. Medium sweetness, good citrus and an almost herbal quality. Score - 94
Rob - Complex flavor with a mineral finish. Almost a mediciny, soda cracker-like flavor. Score - 89

9. Fever Tree
Matt - Lemon-lime soda, light bitterness. Simple, somewhat uninteresting. Some minor off-flavors. Score - 87
Rob - Simple but good tonic flavor. Won't get in the way of your gin. Score - 88

Final Rankings:

1. Schweppes Indian Tonic (94)
2. Fentiman's (90)
3. White Rock (89)
4. Hansen's (88)
5. Schweppes/Fever Tree (87, tie)
7. 365/Stirrings (86, tie)
9. Q Tonic (85)

1. Fentiman's (91)
2. Hansen's (90)
3. 365/Schweppes Indian Tonic (89, tie)
5. Fever Tree (88)
6. White Rock (87)
7. Schweppes (85)
8. Stirrings (80)
9. Q Tonic (75)

Conclusions: We both agreed that Fentiman's was an extremely fine product - Rob had it as his #1 and I had it at #2. It was the only product that scored in the 90's by both of us. At $3.50 for 125 ml, however I'm not sure how much of this I'll be buying in the future. The Lilliputian bottle is so cute though... Thanks to Rachel for picking this up at Galco's Soda Stop in LA.

The Schweppes Indian Tonic was a revelation for me. I loved the complex flavors and gave it extra points for character. Rob liked the complex flavors as well, but was somewhat put off by the mediciney finish. Unfortunately this product is mostly unavailable here in the US. Rarely seen in stores, I considered it a coup to find this at the Beverage Warehouse in Marina Del Rey. How long they will carry it is anyone's best guess. I may have to stock up.

Hansen's did surprisingly well. I usually do not care for it in a gin and tonic because it is not bitter enough. Which, by the way, brings up an interesting point with respect to this tasting; specifically, how will these tonics rate in a classic Gin & Tonic? To answer that, Rob and I have tentatively planned to conduct a comparison of our top picks of these tonics, mixed in a G&T, in the future.

White Rock was an interesting and tasty newcomer that turned out to be my #3 pick. Another rarity picked up at Beverage Warehouse.

Schweppes (domestic) was a disappointment to me. I have long respected its quinine bitterness as a superior ingredient to a proper G&T. In this tasting it did not shine. I will be very interested to compare it with some of the others when we try them mixed in a drink in the future.

365 was only o.k. to me. Rob liked it a bit more and had it tied for #3. It would definitely be worth trying for anyone near a Whole Foods.

Fever Tree had a mediocre showing despite my high hopes for it. It just didn't stand up to the more complex offerings and Rob and I agreed that it had a fairly simple lemon-soda flavor.

Stirrings was uninteresting and a general underperformer, and therefore would not be recommended due to its premium price.

Q Tonic was suprisingly flat in flavor. I found it lacking in character. Rob found it downright offensive. This was probably the second most expensive bottle in the tasting, so I will probably not be buying this in the future. That said, it is being heavily marketed and is probably worth a try for those wishing to try some of the exciting new tonics out there.

Final Notes: This was a long time coming and I had a really good time comparing flavors and ranking this broad range of tonics. I look forward to the "next phase" where we'll have the opportunity to rank these tonics based on their performance in a G&T.


  1. Good stuff, Matt. I tried Fever Tree awhile ago because much was made about it being sweetened with sugar instead of the sticky/synthetic-tasting corn syrup. It definitely tasted lighter to me - which, depending on the gin, could be nice - but wasn't good enough to justify the $. Since 365 and Fentiman's are also sugar based, but appear on opposite sides of your rating spectrum, I gather the sugar/corn syrup debate is much to do about nothing?

  2. Tyler, Thanks for your comment! Sugar is preferred over HFCS by many soda aficionados mostly due to a perceived improved flavor/finish which is supposedly cleaner and less "sticky" as you describe. I'm not particularly a zealot on the issue, but do plan to do some more testing in the future on this subject to see if I can tell a difference.

    I don't necessarily think that having sugar or HFCS will determine whether a product will actually appeal to you or not, but it's a fact that sugar is being used by most high end "craft" sodas these days, good or not.

    A true test (one that I have been intending to conduct for a while now)would be to compare two identical products - one made with HFCS and one made with cane sugar. Dr. Pepper has both versions available, the Dublin, TX version using "Imperial Cane Sugar". I plan to do a triangle tasting (2 of one, 1 of the other) to see if I can really discern the difference and rank the flavor/impression.

    By the way, I should point out that Q tonic was sweetened with agave nectar, but apparently quite a small amount.

  3. Did you ever get around to doing a taste test of the tonics based on the g and t?

  4. No (sigh). Still on the list of important things to do, though. Maybe this summer!!

  5. Looking forward to the review with gin!

  6. Looks like the Dutch Schweppes Indian tonic is available at Real Soda for about $1.35/200ml. They're in Gardena, and local pickup is availabe.

    Hansen at TJ seems to the best rating per dollar? and the most accessible, value tonic. Fentiman's is just too pricey for me.