Drink in History: Tom Collins

There’s nothing in the world that refreshes like a Tom Collins. This cocktail is sweet and tangy and comes with a little mischievous sparkle. It’s a classic so good that it even has a glass named after it. But where did this famous drink get its start?

According to National Brand Ambassador for Tanqueray, Rachel Ford, the history of the Tom Collins perfectly demonstrates how information would have spread back in the 1800s.

The refreshing Tom Collins cocktail. Image via liquor.com.
The refreshing Tom Collins cocktail. Image via liquor.com.

“As the tale goes, individuals would seek to get a rise out of one another by inquiring if the other had seen Tom Collins, a man who was rumored to be running around town speaking what I like to call ‘Colonial smack’ about him,” said Ford. “The affected party would naturally become agitated and pursue this Collins character with a vengeance.”

Of course, there was no actual Tom Collins, but the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874 became so viral that inquiries into the whereabouts of the fictional character were printed in several New York newspapers. In 1876, the recipe for the Tom Collins appeared in Jerry Thomas’s cocktail book. It’s believed that Thomas named the cocktail in honor of the rumored story-telling man.

Although gin, the base of the cocktail, is often categorized as a warm-weather drink, the Tom Collins is pleasantly versatile, and no doubt about it, fun to talk about. It can be presumed that a call for gin in Jerry Thomas’s cocktail book, near the end of Prohibition, would have required sweeter Old Tom style gin. Tanqueray produced an Old Tom gin from 1835 until 1932, and it’s from that recipe that today’s Tanqueray Old Tom gin incarnation was inspired, which now provides balance to many of the cocktail recipes from back in the day.

“Tanqueray would have been producing an Old Tom in 1876 when the recipe for the Tom Collins appeared in print, and I like to think that a Tom Collins made with Tanqueray Old Tom provides us with a window to the past, as seen through the cocktail glass,” said Ford.

Flashing forward and looking at present times we can see that the thirst for gin, including the Tom Collins, is going strong. Matt Teacher, mixologist and author will introduce his engaging and informative book, The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of the New Gin Revival to share his experiences on the misunderstood spirit. The book reads like a personal collection, packed with recipes, celebrated clubs and bars, top mixologists, and the distilleries responsible for making the best gins today. According to Teacher, his story of the Tom Collins digs a bit further, down a different route. Although aware of the different stories on the subject, Teacher favors the theory that the cocktail originated from John Collins, a bartender who served a gin punch at Limmer’s Hotel in London in the 1820s and 1830s. The punch used oude genever, a style of the Dutch forerunner to gin, and it’s believed by some that after a little experimentation, the Old Tom gin replaced the genever, hence the name “Tom Collins.”

“Both history’s pencil and eraser have had their way with the legend of Tom Collins,” said Teacher. “What personally attracts me to this cocktail is the balance of the tart fresh lemon juice and the deep sweetness of Old Tom gin. The soda water provides the crisp refreshing element. It’s an excellent alternative to a gin and tonic.”

To stir up the classic Tom Collins and many other irresistible gin recipes, look out for the release of The Spirit of Gin this November.

Want to know more? Visit Teacher’s blog at thespiritofgin.wordpress.com.

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