Gin Variations 1: The Tom Collins

February 6, 2012

This is the start of a little beginner cocktail blog for my fellow cocktail geeks and for my own record as I start exploring the world of cocktails.

I live in Taiwan, so there’ll be an emphasis on things available in this country and where to find ingredients locally.

So in New Zealand I bought 3 different kinds of gin to add to the standard London Dry. The slightly less dry and smoother Plymouth Gin, sweeter still Old Tom Gin (Hayman’s) and the ancestor of British gin, Genever (Bokma Oude) aka Holland Gin. Now to start experimenting with them.

Last night was the Tom Collins. I’d made this before, and was unimpressed. My biggest mistake (made of necessity) was using London Dry Gin, which is what nearly all gin is these days, and is the only kind available in Taiwan. The second part of the mistake was that in the 90s I was totally sucked into believing that Bombay Sapphire was the ultimate in premium gin, thanks to their ever-so-slick marketing (well word of mouth really – all my mates said it was the best – makes me wonder if I ever really enjoyed those extra-dry martinis, or just pretended too). My recent reading on the subject seems to suggest that serious spirit aficionados scoff at Bombay Sapphire. Tanqueray is said to be by far the better common alternative (but get the 47% variant if you can) and even old Beefeater a close second.

So what is a Tom Collins? Basically a variant on the ‘fizz’, a successor to punch and predecessor of the cocktail – gin, lemon juice, sugar and soda. According to cocktail historian extraordinaire Dave Wondrich, an old bartender in the early 19th century used to make an iceless gin-based short punch that was very popular. It moved to the US, got ice, got bigger and got its own glass. Oh, and due to an hilarious mix-up it changed names.

Cocktail history is full of interesting stories and anecdotes about how drinks were invented and got their names. This is one of the stupidest. Around about the 1860s those fun-loving ‘sportsmen’ who liked  to hang around bars talking about and betting on horses and fights (yes, cocktails are the preserve of sophisticated gentlemen) started a joke which spread through American bars like wildfire. The hoax was to turn to one of your drinking buddies and tell him how that fellow Tom Collins had been dissing him royally. Upon being asked the location of said cad, you would direct your fellow to another nearby bar, barbershop, street corner, etc. When arriving at the new location, another clued-in member of the sporting fraternity would inform your friend that Tom Collins had called his mother a crack-whore and was right now headed to the racetrack. Your drinking buddy would be led a merry chase around town in search of someone who – here’s the punchline – didn’t exist! This was surely a height of humour not to be reached again until modern day wits started losing ‘The Game’ on the World Wide Web.

Oh yeah, back to the drink. Thanks to the prank to end all pranks, cocktail sophisticates of the day found Tom Collins easier to remember than John Collins and the name stuck. It was almost identical to the gin fizz, but should be built in a tall ‘Tom Collins’ glass full of ice cubes rather than shaken and strained into a smaller glass.

Tom Collins

2 oz Old Tom gin

1 oz lemon juice

1 1/2 tsp of powdered sugar

soda water

lemon wedge

Dissolve half the sugar in lemon juice in the bottom of a Tom Collins glass. Fill with ice cubes. Add gin. Stir. Top up with soda water. To get a little fizz going, add the rest of the sugar and stir again vigourously. Garnish with lemon wedge.

I made this with Taiwan lemons which are sourer and tarter, so used a little more sugar, and I’m not sure the fizzing really worked. Worth a shot though. It was still a little sour, but I like it that way. I think I’ll try with yellow lemons next time though. The Old Tom gin was a definite improvement on the Bombay Sapphire. This was a really nice drink and would be even nicer as a summer cooler. I still prefer a gin and tonic, but this is a great alternative.


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