The original story of the Tom Collins cocktail involves a rhyme as well as a trash-talking hoax … Believe whichever version you prefer but do try this tangy, refreshing gin-based drink.
Between the pages of the New and Improved Bartender’s Manual or How to Mix Drinks of the Present Style by Harry Johnson, published in 1882, is among the first printed references to a Collins cocktail. It called the drink a Tom Collins and required Old Tom gin for its construction. However there was also a John Collins – and the core ingredient in that drink was Dutch genever, the forerunner to what we now know as gin.
The Americans however, don’t support this view – since Jerry Thomas, a man considered the father of bartending or mixology was one of the first to publish any form of drink or cocktail recipes in 1862 in the form of The Bar-Tender’s Guide. An updated version published in 1876 contains the first documented recipe for a Tom Collins.
One source of information is cocktail historian David Wondrich who has found references to the Collins which predate either of these. It’s Wondrich’s view that they are remarkably similar to gin punch, a drink very popular amongst Britain’s titled society who frequented clubs such as the Garrick in the early 1800s.
There’s also some validation for the John Collins version to have been around since the 1860’s. Its existence is attributed to a headwaiter by the name of John Collins who worked at a Mayfair hotel in London, Limmer’s Old House in Conduit Street. There’s even a little ditty or rhyme which documents that fact:
My name is John Collins, head waiter at Limmer’s,
Corner of Conduit Street, Hanover Square,
My chief occupation is filling brimmers
For all the young gentlemen frequenters there.
Nonetheless, the mixture of gin, sugar syrup, lemon juice and sparkling water happily found its way to American shores and proved to be a hit. And it was in New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that the Tom Collins hoax became a thing in 1874.
Apparently unsuspecting folks would have a friend tell them that a chap by the name of Tom Collins was trash talking and sullying their reputation. The gullible victim would then be directed to the nearest bar or diner or wherever to go and challenge this Collins fellow to set the record straight.
As Wikipedia notes: “The speaker desired the listener to become agitated at the idea of someone talking about them to others, such that the listener would rush off to find the purportedly nearby Tom Collins. Several newspapers propagated the very successful practical joke by printing stories containing false sightings of Tom Collins. The 1874 hoax quickly gained such notoriety that several 1874 music hall songs memorialized the event (copies of which now are in the US Library of Congress).”
Be it Tom or John, British or American in origin, made with Old Tom gin or London dry, it’s a really simple cocktail to make. It’s simply built in the glass and topped with sparkling water: no shakers, muddlers or straining required.
(Note: Old Tom gin was a precursor to modern “cleaner” London dry gin and was sweetened in order to mask some of the rawness of the distillation. So if an Old Tom gin is used, remember to reduce by half the sugar syrup or omit it altogether.)
25ml lemon juice
25ml sugar syrup
125ml sparkling or soda water, chilled
Build the drink over plenty of ice in a Collins glass. Stir gently and garnish with a slice of lemon or twist of lemon peel.