What is the difference between tonic water and tonic syrup?

Quick Answers

Tonic water and tonic syrup both contain quinine, which gives them a bitter flavor. The main differences are:

  • Tonic water is carbonated and diluted with water, tonic syrup is a concentrated syrup.
  • Tonic water is used as a mixer for cocktails like gin and tonic, tonic syrup is used for flavoring drinks and desserts.
  • Tonic water has lower sugar content, tonic syrup is very sweet.

What is Tonic Water?

Tonic water is a carbonated soft drink that contains quinine as a main ingredient. Quinine gives tonic water a distinctive bitter flavor. Originally used as an anti-malarial treatment, small amounts of quinine are still added to tonic for flavor.

Modern commercial tonic water contains a low percentage of quinine, typically around 83 mg/L. This amount is much lower than the 500-1000 mg doses that were used for malaria prevention in the past. The quinine concentration is enough to give tonic a bitter taste, but not high enough to be medically effective.

In addition to quinine, tonic water contains carbonated water, citric acid or lime juice for tartness, and sweeteners like sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners. Traditional tonic has minimal sugar added, while modern mass-produced varieties often contain higher sugar concentrations.

Tonic water was created in the early 1800s as a palatable way to take quinine. British officials stationed in tropical colonial outposts like India and Africa mixed quinine with carbonated water to prevent and treat malaria. They added sugar and gin to improve the bitter taste, inventing the gin and tonic cocktail.

Today, tonic water is popular as a mixer with spirits like gin and vodka. The bitterness balances sweet liquors. Tonic can also be enjoyed on its own or used in other cocktails. Higher-end tonics use natural cane sugar and botanical flavorings like citrus, ginger, and lemongrass.

Tonic Water Facts

  • Carbonated water with quinine added for flavor
  • Contains 83 mg/L of quinine typically
  • Also includes sweeteners and citric acid for tartness
  • Serving size of 125mL has 40-80 calories typically
  • Used as a cocktail mixer, especially with gin
  • Bitter flavor balances sweetness of liquors
  • Originally contained higher quinine doses as an anti-malarial

What is Tonic Syrup?

Tonic syrup is a concentrated, non-carbonated liquid that contains quinine, sugar, and water. It has a very sweet, bitter flavor profile.

Tonic syrup is made by dissolving large amounts of powdered quinine in simple syrup (sugar and water mixture). Additional flavorings like citrus, herbs, spices, and flower extracts are often added as well.

The quinine content of tonic syrup is much higher than commercial tonic water, though not as high as the medicinal doses used historically. Tonic syrup usually contains around 300-500 mg of quinine per serving.

Since it does not contain any carbonated water, tonic syrup has a thick, viscous consistency. It is around 60% sugar by volume. This makes it extremely sweet with a sugary texture.

Tonic syrup was developed as a way to recreate the flavor of quinine tonic water in a concentrated form. It can be drizzled into cocktails, used to sweeten and flavor carbonated water, or added to juices and smoothies.

The sugary syrup is popular for mixing into gin cocktails or non-alcoholic drinks. A small amount of tonic syrup can provide strong bitter notes without diluting or over-sweetening the drink. The thick syrup also allows tonic flavor to remain evenly mixed instead of dissipating like carbonation.

Tonic syrup can also be incorporated into desserts like ice cream, panna cotta, and fruit salads. A dash of tonic syrup adds bitterness that complements sweetness. The use of tonic syrup in cocktails and food only became trendy in the early 2000s with the craft cocktail movement.

Tonic Syrup Facts

  • Sweet concentrated syrup with quinine
  • Contains 300-500 mg quinine per serving
  • Made from simple syrup (sugar and water) and quinine
  • Also includes botanical flavorings like citrus
  • Thick viscous texture, around 60% sugar
  • Used to add quinine flavor to cocktails and desserts
  • Small amounts can provide intense bitter flavor
  • Does not contain carbonated water

Differences Between Tonic Water and Tonic Syrup

While both tonic water and tonic syrup contain quinine for bitterness, there are several key differences:

Quinine Content

Drink Quinine Content
Tonic Water 83 mg/L typically
Tonic Syrup 300-500 mg per serving

Tonic syrup contains significantly higher concentrations of quinine, around 4-6 times more per serving. This gives tonic syrup an intensely bitter, medicinal flavor. Tonic water has moderate bitterness that balances sweetness.


Tonic water is carbonated like soda water. The carbon dioxide bubbles give it an effervescent texture. Tonic syrup contains no carbonated water and has a smooth, thick syrupy consistency.

Sugar Content

Drink Sugar Content
Tonic Water 40-80 calories per 125mL serving
Tonic Syrup Around 60% sugar by volume

Tonic syrup is extremely sweet, with nearly 2/3 of its volume coming from added sugar. Tonic water has a much lower sugar concentration, comparable to soda.


Both drinks contain added citric acid or lime juice for tartness. Tonic syrups often contain additional herb, fruit, and floral flavorings like lemongrass, ginger, and elderflower. Tonic water has a relatively simple flavor profile.

Cocktail Use

Tonic water is added to cocktails as a mixer. The carbonation and moderate quinine bitterness make it an ideal partner for spirits like gin and vodka.

Tonic syrup is used in very small amounts – by the teaspoon or barspoon. It provides a concentrated quinine flavor without excessive sweetness or dilution of the drink.

Food Use

Tonic syrup can be drizzled over desserts or added to juices and smoothies for a bitter quinine kick. Tonic water is not commonly used in cooking or baking.

Is one better than the other?

Tonic water and tonic syrup both have their strengths and are used in different ways. Tonic water is ideal for making cocktails where you want carbonation, dilution, and restrained sweetness. Tonic syrup is preferred when you want an intense hit of quinine flavor without altering the drink’s texture.

In cocktails, tonic syrup provides clean quinine bitterness that doesn’t overpower other ingredients. In food, tonic syrup’s thick consistency makes it easier to incorporate into desserts compared to watery tonic water.

For regular gin and tonics, tonic water is still the better choice. The carbonation provides an appealing textural element. Tonic syrup would make a gin and tonic cloyingly sweet.

However, tonic syrup allows more versatility and creativity when making unique cocktail infusions or food pairings. In the right applications, just a dash of tonic syrup can provide the perfect bitter note to balance flavors.

So in summary:

  • Tonic water is better for classic gin and tonic cocktails
  • Tonic syrup allows more versatility in premium cocktails and desserts
  • Each one shines in different contexts based on carbonation, sweetness, and quinine levels

The choice between the two comes down to the drink or dish being prepared. Having both tonic water and tonic syrup allows the best results across different applications.


Tonic water and tonic syrup share common ground with their quinine content, but have major differences in carbonation, sweetness, concentration, and usage.

Tonic water’s moderate bitterness and carbonation make it ideal as a cocktail mixer. Tonic syrup has an intense quinine flavor and thick syrupy body that allows small amounts to provide big flavor, especially in cocktails and desserts.

While tonic water will always be the right choice in mixed drinks like a gin and tonic, tonic syrup opens up options for creative drink infusion and food pairings. Tonic syrup concentrate allows flavor possibilities that would be difficult to achieve with carbonated tonic water alone.

Both products have unique strengths. Having tonic water for cocktails and tonic syrup for cooking provides the most versatility and ability to balance flavors with the perfect addition of quinine’s bitter taste. With the right applications, tonic water and tonic syrup can transform and enhance drinks and dishes.

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