What's the Difference Between Tonic Water and Club Soda?

Level up your cocktail game by harnessing the different powers of tonic water and soda water.

I think drinks are always better with a little fizz. There are plenty of reasons to add some bubbles to a cocktail; maybe you’re brightening a bitter aperitivo, adding a splash of soda to a spirit to slow down at a party, or perhaps you’re even just drinking it solo over ice with a big squeeze of lime. When it comes to carbonation, two mixers reign supreme: tonic water and club soda. These non-alcoholic mixers are ubiquitous  in any bartenders’ arsenal, but there can still be confusion over which to use, when, and why. 

What is Club Soda?

If you pass through the soda aisle at any well-stocked grocery store, the bubbly water category quickly becomes much more complicated. For starters, there are multiple names for more or less a similar tasting product: club soda, seltzer, sparkling water, sparkling mineral water. While grabbing one can or bottle over the other might not make or break its use in a cocktail, understanding the difference between the bubbles can be useful. 

Club Soda v. Tonic Water

Matt Taylor-Gross

Unlike Champagne, or other sparkling wines or ciders which get their bubbles from captured carbon dioxide produced during fermentation, most fizzy water is artificially carbonated with auxiliary carbon dioxide gas. The first carbonated waters were produced by scientists in the 1700s who captured gas from natural sources and infused it into still water — think of how a SodaStream pumps gas from a canister into a bottle of previously still tap water to make sparkling water in seconds. 

The taste, though, is what really sets these categories apart. “The movement towards higher quality ingredients, craft and provenance swept the drinks industry yet seemed to pass over the mixer category,” says Amanda Stein, vice president of marketing for Fever-Tree USA. Though flavor-free in its most unadulterated state, the additives, or lack thereof, to bubbly water give it its identity and can affect taste and quality. 

Seltzer is simply plain, carbonated water, whereas sparkling mineral water has naturally occurring minerals like salts or sulfur which are present in the springs where the water is harvested. Club soda, on the other hand, is made from carbonated water and added minerals to affect taste. “The mineral content of the water [can] distinctly affect both taste and mouthfeel,” writes Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle, who recently conducted a rigorous taste test of sparkling waters. The more minerals present in the club soda, the more likely the water is to be overly-salty or metallic tasting, something you probably don’t want in your mixed drink. According to Stein, the mineral mix in Fever-Tree club soda is consciously blended for mixing with spirits: “Our club soda is perhaps our simplest product yet its important silky smooth texture is created by using the finest spring water with a low mineral count, bicarbonate of soda, and a high level of carbonation that work to bring out the key flavors of premium spirits it's mixed with.”

What is Tonic Water?

“Unlike club soda, which simply adds refreshing bubbles to top off a drink, tonic water is characterized by slightly bitter and citrusy notes,” says Giuseppe “Beppe” Musso, master blender at Martini & Rossi. Tonic water’s signature bitterness makes it a somewhat polarizing mixer, but also gives it its identity. High quality tonic water is made with quinine, a derivative from the bark of the cinchona tree. While toxic when consumed in large quantities a small amount of quinine gives just enough bitterness to flavor tonic water. Despite its relatively simple recipe of carbonated water, quinine, and a bit of sugar, tonic water has a complicated history. 

In their podcast episode, “Move Over Gin, We’ve Got Tonic Fever,” Gastropod hosts Nicola Twilly and Cynthia Graber explain the complicated history of quinine and its role in colonialism. Quinine, the key ingredient in tonic water, is harvested from the bark of the cinchona tree, a plant in the coffee family that is native to the Andes with fragrant white flowers. The bark of the plant contains naturally occurring, bitter alkaloids that poison any small creature which tries to chew through the bark.

“But in a strange and useful twist, while a lot of quinine might be poisonous, a little quinine is actually a good thing,” explains Graber. Cinchona is a natural anti-malarial, and has been used for hundreds of years to help cure the dangerous disease. Though the cure of disease is objectively a good thing, the discovery of cinchona’s malaria-curing bark by European colonists in South America helped fuel a new wave of destruction of native land and peoples. “Empire and quinine are very intimately related,” says Mark Nesbitt, guest on Gastropod.  “Cinchona basically paved the way for the Scramble for Africa, when European countries raced to grab chunks of the continent for their own empires,” explains Twilley.

But how did we go from a bitter extract from a tropical tree bark to a bubbly cocktail mixer hooked up to soda guns around the world? Europeans created cinchona plantations in their colonies to harvest quinine, and mixed it with water and sugar to make it palatable . With the rise in popularity of carbonated water in the 18th and 19th centuries, it soon became a bubbly beverage used both medicinally and recreationally when mixed with alcohol, and of course, gin. 

Despite a complicated origin story, tonic water's bittersweet flavor profile makes it a versatile mixer for botanical spirits like gin, herbal aperitivo, and sweeter amaros. High quality tonic water has carefully sourced quinine which gets carefully blended for the ideal taste: “Fever-Tree’s founder Tim Warrillow identified that the last remaining plantation of the highest quality quinine was just about the most remote and lawless place in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo,” says Stein. “To this day, we still source our quinine from Central Africa and add a touch of Mexican bitter orange to create a refreshing, subtle citrus taste & aroma across our Tonic range.”

When to Use Tonic Water Versus Club Soda

These deceptively simple bubbly mixers play distinct roles and knowing how and when to use them will significantly improve your mixology skills. Since both provide tingly effervescence, it all comes down to taste. When crafting Martini & Rosso’s Fiero, a citrus-forward aperitivo made from a blend of vermouth, orange, and white wines, Musso had tonic water in mind.

Adding tonic to a cocktail allows you to layer bitter notes for more complexity, or it can help offset sweetness and the harsh bite of high-proof spirits. The most classic combination of gin and tonic is the perfect example of this: tonic’s sweetness enhances gin’s herbaceous flavor and its bitterness calms its alcoholic kick. 

Anything mixed with tonic can easily be mixed with club soda, and vice versa, but club soda offers a subtle flavor desired in many situations. Stein enjoys mixing club soda with tequila or whiskey to amplify the complexity of the spirits, “I’ll also use it to add carbonation to a drink that already has a variety of flavorful ingredients,” she says. 

Whether you’re building a Mojito, adding some citrus-y fizz to a Paloma, or topping off a Tom Collins, tonic water and club soda bring life to a cocktail, and make them last a little longer, too. 



Was this page helpful?
Related Articles