Is that Old Tom in your Collins?

I have no data to back this up, but I’m pretty sure the Tom Collins glass is better known than the drink it was named after.

Technically it’s just a “Collins glass,” but you’ll find dozens of listings on Etsy and eBay, and even inventory at major department stores, that add the first name. It’s cylindrical, tall, and narrow, ideal for high-volume drinks served on ice because it helps keep the cubes from spilling down (or into) your shirt. It’s a close cousin of the highball glass, though some people say they’re the same thing. (No, they’re not.)

But you’re much more likely to hear a bar order for a Highball—or a Mai Tai or a Rum and Coke or any of several dozen other drinks typically served in a Collins glass—than you are a Tom Collins. And that’s a shame, because done correctly, the namesake cocktail—Old Tom gin, lemon juice, sugar, and seltzer—is unique and fantastic.

First, it’s important to understand that the Tom Collins was around long before the drink (or the glass) was called that. The first modern American cocktail guide, Jerry Thomas’ 1862 How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion, includes a recipe for Gin Punch that sounds very much like a Tom Collins. David Wondrich, in his outstanding cocktail history guide Imbibe!, dates the drink even earlier, to the 1830s, when a New York theatrical manager named Stephen Price was perhaps the first to add soda water to a Gin Sour. Price’s concoction was picked up and popularized by a headwaiter in London named … well, John Collins.

So how did a John become a Tom? Here the story gets murky, involving a supposedly popular bit of tavern high jinx during the 1870s in which one customer would tell another that the latter was the target of disparagement from some bloke named Tom Collins, last seen in a bar down the block. When the slandered party turned up at that bar, ready for fisticuffs, customers would tell him that Tom Collins had just left and was heading to yet another establishment. And so on and so on, from bar to bar, to the great merriment of all, apparently.

The more logical explanation is simply that John Collins used Old Tom-style gin in his version, and that’s the one that finally took hold.

Until recently, that is. Many of the cocktail guides published over the past several decades, if they include a Tom Collins recipe at all, call for London dry gin. In part that’s due to that gin’s familiarity and in part because Old Tom gin, the sweeter forebear of London dry, was almost impossible to find until Ransom, a distillery in Oregon, collaborated with Wondrich to produce the first Old Tom since Prohibition.

New York Times spirits columnist Robert Simonson insists that only Old Tom gin makes for a proper Tom Collins, and I agree. “For some reason, London dry, which makes a Martini stand up straight and packs punch into a Gin and Tonic, renders a Tom Collins thin and uninteresting,” he writes in 3-Ingredient Cocktails. “Old Tom makes a vastly superior Tom Collins.”

That said, variations on the Tom Collins abound, and you should try them. These days, the John Collins substitutes bourbon for gin, although if you want to be historically accurate, you’ll use Genever, a sort of cross between whiskey and gin that was popular in the 19th century and is even harder to find than Old Tom. The Joe Collins (or Comrade Collins) is usually called a Vodka Collins. The Pedro Collins uses rum, and the Mike Collins Irish whiskey. And so on and so on, to the great merriment of all.

If you’d rather stick with gin (a sensible choice, I say), here are three Tom Collins variations that demonstrate the incredible versatility of a very simple drink. The Elderflower Collins, in particular, is a delight, even with London dry gin.

And if anyone tells you Tom Collins has been trash-talking you, don’t believe them. Tom is everyone’s best friend.

Tom Collins

Adapted from 3-Ingredient Cocktails by Robert Simonson

2 ounces Old Tom gin
1 ounce simple syrup
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
Lemon wedge and maraschino cherry for garnish

Shake the gin, syrup, and juice with ice for about 15 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass and top with the seltzer. Garnish with lemon wedge and cherry.

Grapefruit Collins

Adapted from Cocktail Codex by Alex Day, Nick Fauchald, and David Kaplan

2 ounces gin
1 1/2 ounces fresh grapefruit juice
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 ounces chilled seltzer
Half grapefruit wheel for garnish

Briefly shake gin, juices, simple syrup, and bitters with ice for 5 seconds. Strain into a Collins glass containing the seltzer. Fill glass with ice cubes and garnish with grapefruit wheel.

Elderflower Collins

Adapted from BBC Good Food

2 ounces gin
2 ounces lemon juice
1 ounce elderflower liqueur
5 ounces seltzer
Lemon slice for garnish

Build the drink over plenty of ice in a Collins glass. Stir gently and garnish with a slice of lemon. 

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