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What is Bitter Lemon?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Bitter lemon is an interesting, tart variation of tonic water. Typically tonic water is a carbonated beverage with a mixture of sweetener, caffeine, and quinine. When lemon juice is added to this mix, the drink becomes bitter lemon.

It would be a mistake to assume that the lemon adds a bitter taste to the soda. Quinine creates bitterness while lemon juice adds tartness. Sugar levels in bitter lemon keep the lemon element fairly sweet, but do little to mitigate the bitter taste of quinine. However, many people have come to enjoy the taste of this additive, which was initially made into syrups to fight malaria. Others who didn’t care for the flavor cut the taste of early tonic syrups and then tonic water by adding liberal amounts of alcohol to them, thus creating popular cocktails like the gin tonic.

Variations of bitter lemon first appeared in the mid-20th century, and the Schweppes® Company, already very well known for their tonic water, claims to have created it. Since then many fans have used the soda as a substitute for tonic water. On some of the sites of companies that are the main manufacturers of the mixer, like Canada Dry® and Schweppes®, there are recipes for various bitter lemon cocktails. Classics include adding gin or vodka to the soda. Another drink that uses the mixer is the Deep Blue Sea, which mixes a shot of it with peach schnapps, blue Curacao and lime cordial.

It should be noted that other lemon drinks aren’t usually good substitutes for bitter lemon. If the drink doesn’t contain quinine, it usually won’t have the added tang or flavor desired in cocktails. Though there are many excellent and relatively sour carbonated lemon drinks, like Limonata®, they aren’t bitter enough to use as substitutes.

It isn’t necessary to add alcohol to this soda to enjoy it. It can be said that the soft drink has a small devoted following who would only think of adding ice to it. Bitter lemon is certainly not equal in popularity to other drinks like colas, lemon-lime sodas, or root beers.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon1007223 — On Jun 19, 2022

I have never met a tonic water I didn't like. I have also never met a tonic water which has caffeine. Is this a mistake in the article or am I missing something?

By anon964447 — On Aug 05, 2014

I am one of those devotees who loves bitter lemon straight up (or, straight and up), without the addition of any alcohol. I love the flavor of Kinley, but alas, Coca-Cola does not carry it in the States. Fever Tree is okay, but it didn't have quite the taste that I was looking for. Looking forward to trying this recipe!

By anon132389 — On Dec 06, 2010

You can make your own by adding about an 1/8 a cup - 1/4 cup of lemon juice concentrate to a 2 liter bottle of regular tonic water. Nothing beats this refreshing drink on a hot summer day.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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