The Tom Collins had its beginnings in a drink called the Collins Punch which was around in the first half of the 19th century.
John Collin, who was a barman at Limmer’s hotel in London from around 1800 had perfected a punch using Old Tom Gin. In 1865 we hear of a drink called the “John Collins” appearing in Canada and Australia in places patronized by British army personnel. By the time the drink makes it to America, it is mostly being made with Dutch style Gin (like Bols or Holland style).
In the mid-1870s there was an often used prank where someone would approach another and say there was a guy called Tom Collins going around bad mouthing them and he has just gone around the corner. Apparently, it led to people rushing around looking for the abusive Tom Collins to sort him out.
By the 1876 edition of Jerry Thomas’ bartending guide, the drink has appeared as the Tom Collins. Perhaps to make some mileage from the popularity of the prank or in recognition of the growing popularity of Old Tom gin at that time in the US.
The John Collins drink still exists in some places but it generally uses a Holland style gin instead of an Old Tom. However, these days you are just as likely to have a Tom Collins with a London Dry Gin as any.
There are many variations on the measurements for this recipe but the one I prefer has:
30ml fresh lemon juice
25ml sugar syrup
90-120ml soda water
Shake the gin, lemon juice and syrup in a cocktail shaker then strain into an ice-filled Collins glass (16oz or about 480ml). top up with soda water and gently stir.
The Tom Collins appears in The Garden of Eden as well as Islands in the Stream. In the latter, Johnny Goodner, a friend of the main character, Thomas Hudson, is sitting in a chair at the stern of his cruiser, the Narwhal. He has, “a Tom Collins in his right hand and a long, green Mexican pepper in his left.”
‘It’s wonderful,’ he said. ‘ bite just a little piece and it sets my mouth on fire and I cool it with this.’
“He took the first bite, swallowed, blew out, ‘thew!’ through rolled tongue, and took a long swallow of the tall drink.”
This is definitely a summer cocktail. Although it has the same ingredients as a Gin Fiz, it is a long cool drink meant to be savoured.
I first had a Tom Collins on a hot summer night in Sydney at the Bulletin bar. Although I had read about it and had drunk Rum/Pedro Collins before, it still surprised me with how wonderful it was in its simplicity. Incredibly refreshing I would suggest trying it without the sugar if you are aiming to drink a few in one night. The lemon juice tends to hide any sugary taste and you may find you don’t need it if it is the refreshing citrus taste you are after. However, in any good cocktail bar, it is always best to let the experts do it their way. I recently saw a version using a premixed lemon, lime and bitters instead of soda water.
This drink has led to many variations including the Whisky Collins and the Rum Collins.