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.