The Tom Collins

Proposed by: DavidTom

Reviewed by: Jonathan

I’ve reached the conclusion—duh—mixology is subtle. My brother and I encounter some exotic ingredients, but many drinks vary themes. We revisit the staples—juice, simple syrup, the major spirit and the minor one, maybe some stretcher like soda or tonic of ginger ale, and perhaps an element like bitters to challenge an untrained palate. The Tom Collins contains essentials and is even more basic than the archetypical cocktails’ constellation of ingredients. With just four parts, it’s simple.

Yet, our cocktailian adventures tell me every variation deserves a story. To me, it’s a wonder someone playing with these ingredients wouldn’t discover a Tom Collins, but disputation is more interesting, and, of course, there’s an argument.

Who invented the Tom Collins and how does the name arise? A cocktail called John Collins hits the historical record in London around 1860 as part of a song of the time. The name change, apparently, comes from “Professor” Jerry Thomas, the famous American mixologist whose description in 1876 gave the Tom Collins a name and place in bar lore.

But wait a minute. The name change may actually arise from London and the addition of Old Tom Gin, a slightly sweet version of Gin.

But wait a minute again. It turns out that the Tom Collins was also a hoax popular in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in 1874. People would approach someone they knew and say, “Do you know Tom Collins?” and then regale their listener with outrageous stories of the aspersions Tom had been casting about them in a nearby bar. Once the perpetrator had sufficiently riled the victim, the hoaxed person stormed into the bar and shouted, “Where is Tom Collins!?” The other patrons would roar with laughter, happy to discover (and I hope welcome) another snipe hunter.

No one really knows whether a Tom Collins is British or American—though plenty of people, apparently, fight half-heartedly over it. By 1878, it’s a popular drink in bars in New York and London, busily proliferating as people tinker with alternative spirits and other ingredients.

When it comes to provenance, cocktails soar to baffling complexity. You can’t know how hard I fought against making up my own story about the Tom Collins, including obscure German philosophers, time travel, an expedition to Africa, and some mighty angry hippos.

Instead, I’ll just give you the recipe:

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

OTomIt’s funny how even with the classics, like the Tom Collins, there is something to learn and the opportunity for a new liquor to be acquired. We’ve tried a lot of gin recipes and as a result learned quite a bit about gin. Even with that, I hadn’t read much about Old Tom gin or had a reason to use it. But if a drink is named after the gin type, and I lean towards the story that the drink’s first name comes from the liquor, I had to add to the gin collection with some Old Tom.

Another given is that there needs to be some variation of the classic to try along with the basic recipe. We subscribe to a CSA (community supported agriculture) where we pay a seasonal fee and get a bag of fresh produce each week. One of the benefits of this CSA is that we get fruit along with the vegetables plus a small amount of local maple syrup. You read that right—tapped and collected from maple trees in central North Carolina.

This year the farmer has added a quart of sorghum syrup too. Sorghum is one of the early sources for a sweetener that went out of style as sugar cane took over. A quick Google search will show that it is regaining popularity, and I thought it would be interesting to substitute a simple syrup made from sorghum syrup and water in place of the standard simple syrup.

This part is simple—the classic was better. Clear and sparkling, it is a great summer drink. Not sure I could tell a difference in the Old Tom versus another gin, but we can pretend. I expected that the sorghum version would add an extra subtle bitterness that is characteristic of the sorghum extract, but there really wasn’t any notable difference in taste. The color was the main change, and the golden brown, while pretty, wasn’t as appealing as the light color of the original. It was worth the try though.

Jonathan’s take:  It may be boring, but I’m not sure you can beat this classic for simplicity and taste.

David’s Take: Like most classics, this drink does little to offend. I’m not sure whether that’s a recommendation, but it’s certainly an affirmation.

Next Week (proposed by Jonathan):

Time for something different. I’ve been intrigued by types of tequila, and particularly mezcal. There are few cocktails made with mezcal in large part because of the assertiveness that results from the roasting and smoking of the agave. The drink that I am proposing is called the Old Oaxacan and it includes lime, mint and champagne to soothe the savage liquor. At least that’s what I hope.

The Black Eyed Susan

b-eyed sProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

The Preakness Stakes is the second race of horse racing’s Triple Crown. Two weeks ago we celebrated the first race, the Kentucky Derby of course, with the traditional Mint Julep. This week’s cocktail is named after the official flower of Maryland and is the cocktail of The Preakness – the Black Eyed Susan.

Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore hosts the Preakness which was run for the first time in 1873, two years before the Kentucky Derby. Unlike the Derby which has been run every year since 1875, though, the Preakness missed a few years and was run at other tracks during its history. The race features its own traditions in the singing of Maryland’s state song (Maryland, My Maryland), a blanket of flowers for the winner (Black Eyed Susans or their substitute since they bloom later in the year), and the cocktail that we are celebrating.

The official cocktail has changed recipes over the year and any quick search will turn up a number of variations. The history began in a cloudy way when the first versions were premixed and the exact makeup kept secret by the company that made them. The story goes that the folks at Pimlico decided to make their own and a recipe was created to mimic the original. Since then though, there are versions different enough that they do not even contain the same base liquors. The Preakness web site includes what is now the “official” version made with Finlandia Vodka, St. Germain (an elderberry liqueur), and the juice of lemon, limes and pineapple. Needless to say it is official because it is sponsored by Finlandia and St. Germain.

My proposal last week was that we each try the version of our choice. Last year, before this blog was envisioned, our household celebrated the Derby with Juleps. The races that followed seemed to be a good excuse to try the traditional cocktails of each and we did just that. The Black Eyed Susan I made then included vodka and Kentucky whiskey (Early Times Kentucky Whisky, and yes, the spelling difference is correct). Based on that and few extra taste testers I found a recipe for a pitcher of the drink that was close to it:

1.5 cups vodka
1.5 cups rum, whiskey, or bourbon (I used bourbon)
.75 cups triple sec
4 cups orange juice
4 cups pineapple juice
1 tablespoon of lime juice

Garnished with an orange slice, cherry and fresh pineapple.

Add in some kind of crab dish, singing along with Maryland, My Maryland and you have your own tradition. At least until they change the recipe again.

beyedsuzDavid’s Review:

I had no intention of including St. Germain in this recipe, despite what the track says this year, but I did. It was on sale at a high falootin’ grocery I visit (but still mighty expensive) and I just couldn’t resist. Say what you will about the cost of St. Germain, it’s delicious and, I think, adds a great deal to this cocktail.

The Preakness usually goes unnoticed for me—it’s the first race after the Kentucky Derby—but this cocktail called for close attention. I’m no fan of pineapple juice, as the juice is another case where the fruit can’t be improved upon. Yet this drink offered a fresh and refreshing combination of flavors. Unlike Jonathan, I stuck to vodka and rum (and St. Germain), which made the fruit that much more prominent. In addition, St. Germain has an odd resonance with citrus. Tasted by itself, the liquor is positively protean, seeming at turns herbal, spicy, and fruity. And, at times, it tastes positively pineapply to me.

As we’ve suggested before, the ultimate review of a mixed drink is whether you order another, and we did. We missed the race—why so early, Maryland?—but the drink was a fine way to wind down as spring (finally) seems to be arriving in Chicago.

Maybe expense doesn’t matter so much if the result is a quiet moment of celebration. You don’t need a race or anything else, just the will for gratitude, a desire to acknowledge how good a moment of calm can be.

Jonathan’s take: Fruity. No other way to put it – fruity.

David’s take: Fruit is good, maybe even healthy. Whether it is or not, though, I’ll have another.

Next Week (proposed by David):

Time for another classic, I think. Let’s try a Tom Collins. I don’t have any idea who Tom Collins might be (though I’m certain I’ll find out), or how the drink arrived at that name, but as just about everyone seems to recognize the concoction, maybe it’s time to try one. We have the ingredients after all, and that’s a definite plus.

The Blue Sky Cocktail

Proposed by: Davidblue

Reviewed by: Jonathan

My cousin Alan Bourque and I were particularly close because, besides being exactly the same age, we went to the same college. For a time, it appeared Jonathan’s son Josh and my son Ian might too. Alas, Carolina wait-listed Ian, but he and Josh have always enjoyed being together and have sought every opportunity to meet. And, even if they’re graduating from different schools over the next couple of weeks, they do share the same school color, which you can call Columbia Blue or Carolina Blue as you wish.

This week was all about color, and celebration. Remembering The French 75 fondly, I though it’d be fun to have a champagne (or prosecco) cocktail to commemorate our boys’ achievement. Blue Curaçao provided the color for the Blue Sky Cocktail, which, besides being properly named for our boys’ futures, I hoped might mimic a color that, after living in North Carolina, I can almost see with my eyes closed. Color isn’t my brother’s strong suit, but I want to say, “It’s the gesture. It’s the gesture.”

Once in college one of my roommates said I should add milk to his coffee until it exactly matched the shade of the cup it was in, and it took twenty minutes of careful calibration to get it right. When the coffee arrived cold, he wasn’t amused, but I like a challenge. The recipe for this drink is below, but—confession time—I was more focused on achieving the right tint than the right combination of ingredients. In fact—an uglier confession—the photo I’ve posted above isn’t this drink at all, which, with yellow champagne and lemon juice and brown amaretto, was aqua, the color of no sky I’ve experienced and not nearly faint enough to achieve the pastel glory of Carolina and Columbia. To create the concoction pictured, I combined only the blue curaçao with the champagne and added a little water and then some absinthe to create a milky hue.

The resulting drink was horrible, but it was, I think, a decent approximation of the right shade. There’s that, at least.

Here’s the recipe for a Blue (not really so blue) Sky Cocktail:

  • 1/2 oz blue curacao
  • 1/2 oz amaretto
  • 1/2 oz champagne
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice

Combine everything except the champagne in the glass. Add the champagne and stir gently.

photo-90Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

Last week, David had many well founded reasons to avoid reviewing the Mint Julep. This week I feel almost the same. The proposed cocktail was to be part of our celebration of graduations – first my son, Josh, and then my nephew, Ian. I don’t want a negative review to seem like a sour note in what was in all ways a glorious weekend and series of graduation events. So to handle that, I will consider the drink and the celebrations separately.

We have tried a few different cocktails that have included sparkling wines, and I have learned the type of sparkler matters. This one called for champagne, whereas some of the ones we have had in the past have been very general (sparkling wine) and more specific (Prosecco). The Caiparinha de Uva recipe indicated sweet wine, but David was more successful in substituting Prosecco. I used all of that experience to decide on Cava as the sparkler of choice, and that was part of my undoing.

This cocktail seemed more like a battle than a blend. The Cava and the Amaretto both wanted to assert their will, if spirits can in fact make assertions. It was hard to get past the two of them and even begin to taste where the curacao and lemon juice came in. Even the color was a bit off, with more of a teal than the hoped for light blue. Despite my lovely nieces modeling the drink, one can see the color just wasn’t right or appetizing. I had to wonder if a simple dry champagne would have helped with both taste and color.

The celebration on the other hand was a harmonious blend of events. A party with roommates and their families, dinner with family, a gorgeous Sunday morning graduation ceremony and finally a luncheon to toast the graduate, mothers, and a bonus birthday (my oldest son’s) all made for the perfect weekend. My wife and I feel very blessed that both our sons are graduates of the university from which we received our degrees. Even more importantly, it is obvious that they each had their own great experiences and received a wonderful education all while learning to love the place just as we had.

Jonathan’s take: The cocktail, not so good, but the rest of the celebration, couldn’t imagine better.

David’s Take: I wish I were as happy with this cocktail as I am about Ian and Josh’s graduation. Too bad the Blue Sky Cocktail is okay, but not brilliant.

Next Week (proposed by Jonathan):

Two weeks ago we had Mint Jules with the Derby. This coming weekend is the second race of the Triple Crown, the Preakness. The official flower and cocktail of the Preakness is the Black Eyed Susan. The recipe has changed over the years (oddly in perfect correspondence with the liquor sponsorship), but last year I simply found the version that sounded best to me. Since David and I are our own sponsors, I propose we each do the same and pick the flower which we find the most appealing.


The Mint Julep

julepProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

Some weeks the cocktail seems to pick itself. The first Saturday in May is the Kentucky Derby, and of course the Derby means Mint Juleps. It has been the official cocktail of the race since 1938 and thanks to David and my sister-in-law, Beth, I can say that I have enjoyed one (or more) at the home of the Derby, Churchill Downs. I don’t remember what year that was, but that is more about age than it is the sweetened bourbon and its effects.

A julep is a sweetened and flavored drink, originally made with rosewater. Historic accounts note that the original use of mint and sugar to make a julep included other liquors instead of bourbon. In fact, one of the more interesting things is that before its association with Kentucky the julep was tied to Virginia and breakfast of all things. The idea was that folks would mix a spirit with sugar and mint to get going in the morning. As much as I like a julep, I think I will stick with coffee.

Throughout this cocktail adventure, we have added to our collection of appropriate glasses. This is one of few drinks that we have tried that calls for its own style of cup. The traditional julep cup is made of silver or pewter, the better to frost on the outside when properly mixed. These cups aren’t cheap (and beware of the decorative ones popular for flowers and table dressing) but it seemed worth the investment to enjoy the classic.

There are quite a few suggestions how to mix the proper julep, although the ingredients are fairly simple. Bourbon, sugar, mint, water and ice and you are on your way no matter how you choose to get there. It seems like most recipes start with the mint being muddled with sugar and a small amount of water. Ice and bourbon are added and stirred and then more ice is piled in to get the proper chilling.

I don’t particularly like the mint pieces and find the sugar never really dissolves so I went with mint simple syrup and whole mint leaves at the bottom and as a garnish. It should be noted that the type of ice is important. Most recipes say shaved ice, but that is more work than one should undertake for this relaxing drink. Thanks to my wife finding a source and then getting it, we used granular ice which is perfect for this drink.

Here’s David’s Review:Derby'14

My wife is from Louisville, and I met her during the seven years I lived there. So great is my reverence for that place I wouldn’t deign to review the Mint Julep. That would be a little like reviewing air or the earth beneath my feet.

Oh, I know some people don’t like Juleps. They say they are too sweet or too horsey or too watery or too bourbon-y or too Southern. They dislike the snooty pewter or silver cups and picture the drink as emblematic of a time best forgot. They’ve changed the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home,” but no one seems to change them enough, they say. I understand that thinking. The Mint Julep is bigger than itself and evokes more than sweet and minty bourbon.

But, to me, the appeal of a Mint Julep isn’t its associations—or, at least, most of its associations. I think they taste wonderful. Mint is not my favorite flavor generally, but in combination with the mellow, sour drag of bourbon, the mint seems even sprightlier. Many people object to their confection, but, to me, the simple syrup gives the drink gravity and depth as well as sweetness.

And one association I do approve of—the cocktail’s role as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. I can do without the madras plaid pants, the elaborate hats, and the faux gentility of the occasion. I can do without the parade of wealth. I can do without celebrity and prominence and privilege and exclusivity. But I can’t do without the Juleps.

On a visit to Louisville, Jonathan and his wife Debbie went to the Derby with my wife and me, and I remember buying many official Downs’ Juleps from our un-prominent spot in the infield. It was 1988, I think. The commemorative cup was nice—Louisville locals tend to look down on the track version of the drink—but the day was so much better, bright and warm and funny and, with the neighbors we met, more than a little strange. A good part of my affection for Juleps comes from that day and others. When I have a sip of a Julep, I think of Jonathan and Debbie, and, for that alone, I regard it with gratitude.

We identify memories and feelings about those memories by what urges them into our consciousness. Juleps remind me of the years I attended the Oaks the day before the Derby and the many Derby parties my wife and I have attended and hosted since then. More than anything else, the Derby excuses celebrating, and the race, whatever goes on behind the scenes or rattles through the television tube broadcast, offers a thrill that reminds me to be grateful for chance, the sense that nothing has been written yet.

None of which helps anyone understand what a Julep is like or how it might be good or bad. You will have to look for that elsewhere.

David Take: Mint Juleps are May, and vice versa.

Jonathan’s Take: The julep may have chosen us, but I am happy to choose it back.

Next Week (proposed by David):

Both Jonathan and I have sons graduating from college this May. Josh, Jonathan’s son, graduates next week and my son, Ian, on the 21st. In honor of their achievement and with pride in their accomplishment, I’m proposing a Blue Sky Champagne Cocktail. As chance has it, their schools—Carolina and Columbia—use the same blue (almost), and I’d like to raise a toast, with Jonathan, to our boys.