When To Mix A Drink With Tonic Water Vs. Club Soda

Mixing drinks is both an art and a science, and great mixologists will find the balance between both these things and make something truly great. But, when it comes to our favorite cocktails, we tend to focus more on the powerfully flavored liqueurs, aperitifs, or bitters that accompany them than the otherwise softer and non-alcoholic mixers with which they are paired. A mixer can make or break your drinking experience: A terrible, overly-sweet margarita mix will leave you grimacing into your glass and a whisky sour mix that isn't fresh will put a damper on your sipping experience. But what about the basics, like tonic water and club soda?

According to the Royal Botanical Gardens, quinine, the flavoring in tonic water, was used in the 17th century to help treat cases of malaria and fever. But it wasn't until the 19th century when Erasmus Bond, owner of Pitt & Co. labeled the quinine drink "tonic water" and threw it into a glass with some gin. Meanwhile, Culinary Lore claims club soda is a trademarked term for seltzer water, originally coined in the year 1877 by Cantrell & Cochrane in Dublin, Ireland. 

Tonic water and club soda are both common bar mixing items today and are used in many cocktail recipes. But, are they used in different ways? And, does switching them out make that big a difference?

The difference

Before we get into when to use tonic water or club soda in a mixed drink, it's important to understand the differences between these two items. MasterClass defines tonic water as a carbonated drink with quinine in it. Quinine is a medicinal alkaloid that gives tonic water a notable bitterness that brands will balance out with the addition of sugar or citrus. Club soda, like tonic water, is also carbonated, but instead of using the tart-tasting quinine, club soda has the addition of minerals that leave a salty flavor in the mouth. Club soda can — and often is — substituted with other mineral waters or seltzer water because of their similar quality.

Advanced Mixology says the main defining factor in using these mixers is their distinctive flavors. Tonic water has a bittersweet note, and comes in a wide selection of flavors, pairing nicely with gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, and tequila. Club soda, on the other hand, is a sharp and citrusy flavor making it perfect for lightening drinks like the Paloma and Tom Collins for a refreshing experience. 

Food & Wine claims that incorporating tonic into your drinks can help balance out overly-sweet cocktails (gin and tonic being the perfect example), whereas club soda is better for a subtle flavor.