With gin, lemon juice, sugar, and carbonated water as its key ingredients, one may wonder what makes Tom Collins - in essence, a rather simple concoction - worthy of its august identity in the context of alcoholic beverages.
For one, this drink was the subject of one of the most remarkable practical jokes of history. And this practical joke may have in turn birthed the cocktail.
In 2006, George Sinclair, a noted beverage historian, penned an article for Class Magazine, where he detailed the fascinating origin story of this cocktail. According to Sinclair's account, around 1874, a jest circulated in New York and Philadelphia with a peculiar question:
"Have you seen Tom Collins?" To this, the unsuspecting respondent would typically reply, "No, I do not know of him." The jester would then drop the bombshell: "You should find him, as he has been tarnishing your good reputation around town."
This sparked a peculiar wave of men, fuelled by the prospect of defending their honour, embarking on a quest to locate the elusive Tom Collins. The only issue with this perfect plan? This Tom Collins gentleman, unfortunately, did not exist.
As these affronted men traversed the city in search of their purported defamer, they would invariably find themselves in a bar, only to be served the refreshing concoction known as the Tom Collins. Satisfied with the ruse, the deceived individual then would unwittingly become the new ambassador for this playful joke. This amusing prank quickly gained momentum, securing its spot in history as "The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874."
Sustaining its popularity for over a century, this classic cocktail has now become a blueprint for other effervescent sours, paving the way for modern delights such as the French 75 and a plethora of contemporary spritzes.
But like most cocktails with a long history, the origin of Tom Collins has also been mired in mystery. Its initial appearance is documented in Harry Johnson's 1882 volume, New and Improved Bartender's Manual: Or How to Mix Drinks of the Present Style. The book introduces two variations of the beverage: Tom Collins, incorporating Old Tom gin, and John Collins, which mandates Holland Gin, presumably the precursor to Genièvre as we recognize it today.
David Wondrich, a cocktail historian, points out numerous earlier mentions of this version, emphasising its striking likeness to gin punches served at prestigious London clubs such as the Garrick in the first half of the 19th century.
In an interesting twist, in August 1891, British physician Sir Morell Mackenzie asserted in the influential 19th-century magazine Fortnightly Review that England was the birthplace of the Tom Collins cocktail. He attributed its creation to a person named John Collins, referencing an old song called "John Collins." However, this claim faced immediate scepticism. The British weekly magazine Punch swiftly criticised Mackenzie's assertions in August 1891, pointing out that the song's actual title was "Jim Collins." Punch highlighted Mackenzie's inaccurate quotes and characterisation of the song, shedding light on the possible misinformation surrounding the drink's origin.
However, most historians agree that Tom Collins is a variation of the John Collins cocktail, which enjoyed considerable popularity in the early 19th century, originating from the headwaiter of Limmer’s Old House, a favoured London hotel and coffee house during 1790–1817. Essentially, the John Collins boasted all the fundamental elements of the modern Tom Collins, with one notable distinction: John Collins featured genever instead of gin. Genever, a malty and sweet spirit from Holland infused with juniper, is widely considered the precursor to gin.
As English preferences evolved, Old Tom Gin and London Dry Gin became the dominant choices. Consequently, John Collins underwent a transformation into "Old Tom" Collins, eventually adopting the simplified and familiar name "Tom Collins."
The Tom Collins cocktail even inspired its own specialised glassware – the Collins glass. Tall and slender, the glass was meant to preserve the effervescence of carbonated beverages for longer.
Add the gin, lemon juice and simple syrup to a Collins glass.
Fill with ice, top with club soda and stir.
Garnish with a lemon wheel.