Tuesday, July 28, 2015

:: quinquina - bark to the future ::

I started the seminars at Tales of the Cocktail on Friday with a talk on quinine-laden beverages presented by Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz, Jordan Silbert of Q Drinks, and Jean-Pierre Cointreau of the Renaud Cointreau Group. While a lot of this talk was about quinquinas (also know as quinato, quinado, and chinato depending on the country of origin), some of it entailed tonic water and certain quinine-containing liqueurs like Bonal.

Quinquinas are fortified and aromatized wine that are neither spirits nor spirit-like. The fortification process (the addition of alcohol) is done to provide stability, fix the wine's alcohol levels, and/or add infused flavors of herbs and spices; moreover, the aromatized aspect adds flavors of herbs, fruits, and/or spices via infusion. By E.U. law, they must be at least 75% wine. While French quinquinas allow mistelles (unfermented grape must) for sweetness, Italian chinatos do not. Although many people lump quinquinas with vermouths, they are not all that similar and not a substitute:
Wormwood - major bittering agent of Vermouth; weedy, intensely herbaceous, front palate bitter
Gentian - major bittering agent of Americano; woodsy, floral aromatic, middle palate bitter
Quinine - major bittering agent of Quinquina; flat, sweet spice, back palate bitter like a baritone to a medley
The history of quinine can be traced back to the 1630s when the Spanish were beginning to explore Peru. The wife of the Spanish viceroy got sick with malaria and was on her deathbed despite all of the Spanish doctors' efforts. The Spanish asked the Incas for help, and the Incas created a tea from the quinquina tree that they referred to as the "tree of trees (holy tree)." Due to its success, the Spanish renamed the tree after her, the Countess of Chincho. Quinine is but one of the 38 different alkaloids in chinchona bark, and synthetic quinine lacks this variation. Malaria was not just in South America but in swampy Paris of the 1700s as well, for example. Since the export of chinchona tree seeds was forbidden, the bark got rather pricy to the point that it was literally worth its weight in gold. In the 1850s, seeds were smuggled out of Peru and sold to the British; however, this varietal had low quinine levels in the bark and was rather useless medicinally. It was not until 1862 that Charles Ledger smuggled good quality seeds out of the country. Since the British had been bamboozled a few years prior, they refused, and the seeds were sold to the Dutch who started plantations in their colonies of Dutch Congo and Indonesia. Eventually, Peru was over-harvested and at the beginning of World War II, 95% of all quinine was coming from Indonesia. During the war, Japan attacked Indonesia for their oil and for most of the world's supply of quinine. Part of the United State's Manhattan Project was devoted to creating synthetic quinine (in addition to developing the nuclear bomb) which generated drugs like atabrine and chloroquine.

As a medicine, tonic water took off during the 1820s in the British navy once they learned to mix the quinine with sugar and gin. On the French side of things, quinquinas began to rise in prominence during the 1830s due to French colonial interests. Unlike tonic water, quinquinas were delicious and proved a cost-effective way to enjoy young vine wine especially post Phylloxera. The exotic imagery of overseas colonies and their spices did not hurt the allure either. By the 1930s, quinquina was the largest wine category in France.

This glory was chased by its decline. Mosquito microbes soon began to gain resistance to quinine, France lost its colonies as customers, war time restrictions on alcohol reduced their production, and the new generation of French did not want to drink what their parents drank. Instead, they turned to pastis and whiskey. Moreover, due to French government restrictions on health claims during the 1950s, this class had to be called aperitifs since quinquina implies health benefits; this is not the case in Italy, Spain, and Portugal though. Chinato in Italy regained its popularity by improving its quality and linking it less to health and more to a pleasure angle by proving that wine could pair with chocolate.

Finally, Jordan Silbert spoke about tonic water and what he learned when he discovered that the tonic water he was drinking had the same sugar and preservative levels as Sprite but with different natural and artificial flavors and colors. During the 1950s, the combination of replacing the bark with synthetic quinine and replacing sugar with corn syrup led to sweeter tonic water. The balance of sugar and bitter soon got out of whack with big producers, and sugar was advantageous since it is a masking agent that allows the drinker to use cheaper alcohols. Jordan wondered what he could do if the spirits were actually good and ought to be tasted? His tonic quest led to a lot less sugar, using real bark, and super-carbonation.

In touching on quinquina use in cocktails, Eric Seed declared that they were optimal for use with aromatic and unaged spirits such as gin, agave spirits, and certain rums. In drinks, quinine gives more palate to other flavors in the drink, and the lower proof offers refreshment and lighter drink styles.

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