2 minutes with Sarah Robins
Occupation: Sin-ko-nah tonic maker
Company: Bowled Over Beverages
Where did you get the idea to start making tonic syrup?
I’d (sadly) thought I didn’t like gin until the first time I tried a G&T made with a tonic syrup. I realised everyday tonic was what I didn’t like – loaded with sugar to mask its excessive bitterness, and a hard edge that I now realise was probably due to synthetic quinine. I tried a few tonic syrups – mostly American – and felt the flavour was headed in the right direction, but they were rather thin and not as intense at full strength as they might be. So I started making it. At first in NZ, where my parents continue to make and sell sin-ko-nah, and I do the same here in Australia.
What's the history behind tonic syrup, was it always just a great mixer for gin?
Tonic water was invented to prevent the spread of malaria. In the 1700s the Countess of Chinchon became ill with malaria while living in Peru, and was ‘cured’ by the local medicine plant, cinchona bark. She reported this back to the Spanish court on her return and the bark was named after her. Over the next few decades, Jesuit monks transported the plant and its seeds to Europe (it is also known as Jesuit’s bark). By the time of India’s colonisation, cinchona was well known as an antidote. But cinchona is reportedly the most bitter substance humans can safely consume, and so most people were reluctant to chew the medicinal bark. When British soldiers came down with malaria en masse, it became clear that the bark needed to be more palatable. And so tonic syrup was invented, sweetened to mask the bitterness. I’ve read that the flavour molecules in gin also help balance the bitterness. And as gin was rationed to soliders, the two became a perfect pair.
Making and selling sin-kō-nah is actually your weekend job, what's your day job?
I manage projects designed to help encourage more consumption of vegetables. I’m helping to develop concepts around fresh vegetable snacks (cucumbers, carrots, celery etc), Asian & Indigenous vegetables, community gardens, children’s education and foodservice to name a few. It fits perfectly with many of my personal values and as an innovation non-profit, it’s an exciting place to work and our projects have the potential to effect a huge number of people.
A couple of years ago you wrote an awesome book called Seasonal Regional, what's it about?
I wanted to capture some of the stories exchanged at farmers’ markets, to celebrate the people that grow our food and the bounty of produce in Victoria. It started as a tiny idea but ended up being the catalyst that led to work with the Victorian Farmers’ Markets Association and Slow Food Melbourne, as well as lots of other rewarding food and writing projects.
Best job you ever had?
Well, in a previous career as an art curator I worked on the Venice Biennale and at the Museum of Modern Art, which included some glam fun. But my work at the Victorian Farmers’ Markets Association, with Melbourne Farmers’ Markets and my current role allow me to pursue something I really believe in.
Favourite gin to drink sin-kō-nah with?
(d) all of the above? From Victoria, I’d have to say Loch (Gippsland) and Four Pillars (Healesville).
You can follow Sarah and her tales of tonic on Instagram @sinkonah