It’s a hot summer evening, and you’ve officially punched out from the daily grind. It’s time for a pre-dinner drink on the patio, and your favorite bottle of gin has caught your eye. Few things are more refreshing for warm-weather consumption than a classic gin and tonic, right? But although you probably have a pretty strong opinion about your favorite budget gin—check out our blind tasting of bottom-shelf gin brands for more thoughts on that—have you ever put the same thought into your tonic?
Tonic water does make up the majority of a G&T, after all, but for some drinkers it’s an almost total afterthought. A lot of consumers mixing up a weeknight G&T don’t care at all which tonic they’re using, blithely selecting any one of the bargain bin store brands. On the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, there are devotees to some of the more upscale tonic brands on the market, who insist that only quality tonic will ultimately make for an enjoyable drink.
The obvious question to be answered, then, is “Who is right?” Does cheap, supermarket brand tonic stand up to the more expensive stuff? Can the stalwarts such as Schweppes or Canada Dry beat out their imitators? And are the likes of Fever Tree really worth the money?
At Paste, we know only one way to solve this sort of debate: Blind tasting. And so, I gathered together a handful of the most common and widely available tonic waters to taste them blind against each other, to see how they really taste when you remove branding and marketing from the equation. I included classics of the genre, alongside a few more expensive brands, and a few budget-priced supermarket house brand just to see if one might improbably rise to the top.
Here they are, ranked worst to best!
I’m not going to sugar coat it—the store brand tonic waters fared just about exactly as well as you might expect them to fare. Publix house brand tonic water helpfully notes on the label that it is made “with quinine,” but I can only assume there’s not much of it, as the main drawback here is simply an oppressive blandness.
That’s the big issue—this just doesn’t smell or taste like much of anything. The nose is musty and mild, while the palate features a generic sweetness that evokes corn syrup or Splenda. There’s not much bitterness to be had, and few discernible flavors when all is said and done. This one really just is the definition of boring—not offensive or harshly flavored, but bereft of any reason to taste it again.
Rarely have I ever gone out of my way to set foot in a Walmart in my 30s, but as the country’s biggest retailer I knew I had to go grab their house brand tonic just in case it somehow squirmed its way up to the top of the rankings. Not that I really needed to worry, because the Great Value tonic water has pretty much the exact same failings as the Publix brand—it is aggressively bland and instantly forgettable.
It really is an achievement to create a tonic water with this mild and nondescript a nose—when you raise this glass and smell it, there’s almost nothing there. On the palate, it’s again sweet in an amorphous way, very mild and with the faintest traces of bitterness. If you’re really, desperately searching you might think it had some traces of quinine or berry fruitiness to it, but that’s probably just your brain desperately trying to find some of the flavors you’d normally expect to get in a tonic. This is simply the epitome of blandness, and tell me that’s not what you’d expect from Walmart.
Schweppes produces one of the best-known affordable tonic waters in the world, but it was ultimately one the most difficult to rank in this tasting. That’s because it has some nice things going for it, being much more flavorful and distinctive than the likes of Publix or Walmart, but it also has a tinge of artificiality that undermined its score a little bit at the same time. I have a feeling that one’s enjoyment of Schweppes would likely come down to whether you identify some of its flavors as artificial or not.
On the nose, this one is quite bright and soda like, with lots of lemon lime, crossed with traces of ginger ale. On the palate it’s quite sweet, and the soda-like comparison really takes front and center, with a candy-like citrus flavor that rings a little false. Note, there were several other tonics in this blind tasting with very similar profiles, but they ended up scoring better because they avoided the subtle artificiality or synthetic note that stood out more with the Schweppes. Bitterness is mild here, and overall this reads as one of the sweetest and most soda-like of the tonics. I’m sure that’s exactly what some G&T fans will be looking for, but even among the sweeter tonics I think there are better options.
The “spectacular” in the name certainly seems to promise a revelatory tonic experience, but judging only on its own merits, Q’s offering ends up being decidedly “middle of the pack.” It does stand out for being more dry than some of the stalwarts of the genre such as Schweppes and Canada Dry, but it simultaneously doesn’t have a ton of distinct character of its own.
Q’s tonic has a slight gingery tone on the nose, but overall the aroma is pretty subdued and slightly musty. On the palate it’s more pronounced in its quinine flavor and bitterness than most of the others, while also being more dry. This would be a solid choice if you’re specifically looking for a more dry tonic that is also mild in flavor, but I found some others in this blind tasting that delivered a dry tonic profile in a more exciting way.
The Polar brand produces my everyday, go-to grapefruit seltzer—not the “best” seltzer on the market, but a high-value one I buy all the time—and so I wondered if perhaps they’d also produce a great bang-for-your-buck tonic water. And yeah, this is pretty close to that description, though it’s far from the most exciting of these tonics. Still, it’s a well-rounded one that has no real, glaring flaws.
The nose on Polar’s tonic is sweet and mildly fruity, suggesting a hint of Persian lime. On the palate it’s significantly more sweet and a little bit syrupy, being one of the heavier in the lineup, with lemon lime flavors that at least avoid the pitfall of seeming chemical or synthetic. Bitterness is moderate and well dialed in. All in all, it’s a bit forgettable but it absolutely gets the job done. Of the “extreme value” tonics, this is easily the best of the examples in this blind tasting.
Canada Dry is another one of the market leaders in the tonic category, alongside Schweppes, and I guess I’m not surprised to find that ultimately the two are quite a bit alike in terms of how they taste and smell. Canada Dry, in fact, is almost like an amplified Schweppes, but it notably has a more genuine flavor profile that doesn’t suggest artificiality, which is the key difference.
The nose on this one is lime forward, with hints of sweet stem ginger. On the palate it’s sweet and soda-like, somewhat similar to Schweppes, but it has more supporting bitterness to help round things out. Overall, this was actually one of the most assertively flavored tonics of the tasting, with bold sweetness and bitterness alike. I would imagine this is pretty close to the center of the bullseye in terms of what most consumers are probably expecting to be served when they ask for tonic.
Fever Tree is the brand that has arguably been most responsible over the years for helping to premiumize the entire gin and tonic category, turning a grocery store afterthought into a product with numerous artisanal and local companies producing it. But how does Fever Tree’s well-loved product actually hold up in a blind tasting? Pretty well, as it turns out. Their greater focus on quality ingredients really does shine through in the blind tasting setting.
On the nose here, Fever Tree’s tonic is notably more spicy and complex, with traces of peppercorns and exotic spice, along with pine resin and orange pith. On the palate, there’s also more going on here than in the likes of Canada Dry or Schweppes—it might not be more “strongly flavored” overall, but it’s definitely more subtle and layered. Spice notes like pink peppercorn crop up throughout, along with herbaceous hints of grapefruit and orange. There’s still a pretty good level of sweetness, but also enough balancing bitterness to offset it. Overall, one of the most pleasant of the tasting to drink neat.
If I’m being honest, I really wasn’t certain that I was going to like Navy Hill’s offering at all, much less have it end up in the top spot. They’ve taken a very different approach here, as their product is exactly what it sounds like—a blend of club soda and their own tonic recipe. I was afraid that this might result in a tonic that was too dry and lifeless to be very interesting, but the reality is that Navy Hill’s Soda + Tonic becomes the most complex and nuanced bottle in this tasting. It really works, provided that you’re interested in a more dry tonic water.
On the nose, this one is resinous and lightly perfumey, with floral hints and the suggestion of fresh ginger and cut grass. On the palate it’s initially mild and dry, with a firm bitterness. Certainly, this is more dry than most of the others, and the florals and pine resin qualities follow through here, along with delicate citrus. Again, fresh ginger (or is it lemongrass?) comes through in a really genuine way. At the end of the day, this is perhaps the most complex of the tonics we tasted here, and it really stands out in an enjoyable way. Will it be too dry or too bitter for some? Probably, but those drinkers would probably be right at home with Fever Tree or Canada Dry. If you’re looking for a more elegant take on tonic, however, give Navy Hill a try.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.