Tom Collins

Probably a name we attached to it in the states, even with its British featured ingredient.

A caveat: this is a topic that is the subject of a lot of debate. I’ll try to capture, to the best of my ability, a broad overview of the controversies here, but for some people, the history of spirits is a religion, and I am trying to stay agnostic.

Tom Collins by Barney Bishop, on Flickr (CC license) (cropped).

That said, to understand the Tom Collins, you have to understand the history of gin; and to understand the history of gin, you have to start with its ancestor, Jenever.

Click here to expand an explanation of what malted grain is, if you need a reminder.
Malted grain is any cereal grain that’s been permitted to start sprouting into a plant. These seeds are meant to contain all the elements necessary for life — especially energy, stored in the form of starches. If allowed to germinate, the seed will start converting starches to sugars, as well as release enzymes that can make it easier for yeast to work.

For all of that fancy talk, the process of malting is pretty straightforward: spread out the grain. Get it wet. Let it sprout. Dry it again, slowly, so as not to kill the enzymes.

Jenever is a tradition in the Netherlands and Belgum, and its likely point of origin. While apothecaries across Europe stocked herbal distillations that likely included juniper before the 15th century, it was the Dutch who started to flavor their distilled malted grains to make progressively more alcoholic spirits.

Why the flavoring? Well, it’s like this. Let’s say you’re starting with rye, for example — a slightly spicy, distinct grain. Then you malt it. In the malting process, you roast it to dry it, giving it a bit of smokiness, too. Then you take it to your 15th-century pot still and distill it once into malt wine, adding more flavors from the fire in the process. (If you’re wealthy, you distill it again to make something that’s north of 50% alcohol.) And then, if you’re sending it to someone else, you’re packing it in a barrel.

Advertisement from September 27, 1769 edition of Lloyd’s Evening Post (London, England); “Geneva” highlighted

So you have liquor that tastes like some combination of sweet and spicy with hints of smoke, caramel, and wood. Sugar aside, that might well be a fine flavor profile for a scotch, and as long as you started with barley and distilled it twice and didn’t want to drink for between three and 18 years, you’d be well on your way. But it was much more common to find poor people drinking the once-distilled malt wine, adding some of the region’s abundant juniper to make it taste a little bit better than burnt spicy water.

In the next few centuries, the technology available for distilling advanced by leaps and bounds; by the 17th century, Dutch distilleries were turning out extremely potent Jenever. As a category, it varied as much as modern gin does, but in general, Jenever of the time was sweet, caramel-y, and strongly herbal.

Jenever came to England through a combination of ordinary trade and a bit of a fascination with Dutch culture that took place around the end of the 17th century, when the Dutch-born William III ascended to the throne of England. (He’s also remembered stateside for the college he and his wife chartered in 1693 that still bears their names: William and Mary.) The Protestant William of Orange opposed the influence of the Catholic king of France, Louis XIV, and it was sort of patriotic, in that moment in history, to prefer something Dutch to something French (like wine or brandy).

Add to that influence the fact that the guild monopoly on distillation in London was broken in 1690, and low grain prices in the early- to mid-18th century, and you can see why the British were developing quite a taste for the spirit, even if they still couldn’t quite pronounce it. As observed by Daniel Defoe in The Complete English Tradesman in 1727 (when writing about the effects of an an import ban on French brandy):

We find since these Prohibitions very great quantities of Brandy run by the arts of Clandestine Traders; but even that quantity is now much abated, except in the North parts and West parts, since the Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashioned compound Waters called Geneva; so that the common people seem not to value the French-Brandy as usual, and even not to desire it.

Distilling technology had been advancing, too, making it easier and even more popular to drink lightly-colored, less strongly-flavored liquors. What was being produced was not quite the sweet and strong Jenever, but it also wasn’t quite the modern clear gin of today. It was sort of in the middle; pale, with distinct flavors, and a hint of leftover sugar and malt.

The British government, for its part, tried to stem this “gin craze” through a series of acts of Parliament that levied taxes on the sale of gin and licensing fees on taverns that served it. While the gin craze died out in the mid-18th century, the style of gin that was popular at the time continued right into the early 20th century, where it was frequently bottled with a black cat as part of the label and the name “Old Tom.”

(Some people involved in the sale of modern forms of Old Tom tell stories about signs with a cat or a cat’s paw being used to identify houses where illegal gin was being sold during the gin craze, but there’s no particular evidence to suggest that’s true, and pretty strong evidence that people who went around marking their illegal businesses didn’t stay in business for long.)

Rather than struggling with “Geneva,” eventually, Jenever became known as Hollands gin, and the domestic product was Old Tom gin. Which brings us to the name John Collins.

This much is true: Limmer’s Hotel in London, which closed sometime around 1876-ish (give or take a year), did, at one point in the mid-19th century, have a reasonably well-known waiter named John Collins, with a name that showed up in society magazines from time to time in connection with his red nose.

From there, things get complicated. It’s likely that gin punches originated in taverns like Limmer’s; it’s likely that those recipes came to New York around 1850, when Hollands gin would’ve been the most likely spirit used.

Wikipedia cites the 1869 edition of Haney’s Steward and Barkeep Manual as including a John Collins recipe. Which it does not. The name never appears in that edition.

The closest drink is a “Gin Fix,” on page 47:

91. — Gin Fix.

One wine glass of gin; half wine glass of water; one tablespoonful of sugar; juice of half a lemon; ice. Stir with a spoon, and dd a slice or two of orange, pineapple or berries if in season.

Nor is there a reference to any variety of collins in 1871’s Barkeepers’ Ready Reference.

Then, in 1882, both the John and Tom iterations show up in Harry Johnson’s New and Improved Bartender’s Manual.

58. John Collins.
(Use an extra large bar glass.)

1 table-spoonful of sugar;
5 to 6 dashes of lemon juice;
1 wine glass of Holland gin;
4 or 5 small lumps of ice;

open a bottle of plain soda water, pour this into the ingredients, mix up well, remove the ice, and serve.

Careful attention must be paid when mixing the soda water with the above, not to let the foam of it spread over the glass.

121. Tom Collins.
(Use an extra large bar glass.)

Three-quarters tablespoon of sugar;
3 or 4 dashes of lime or lemon juice;
3 or 4 pieces of broken ice;
1 wine glass full of Old Tom gin;
1 bottle of plain soda water;

mix up well with a spoon, remove the ice, and serve.

Attention must be paid not to let the foam of the soda water spread over the glass.

So what’s the difference between 1869 and 1882? Well, the Tom Collins joke of the 1870s. The game, as described in the June 20, 1874 edition of The Logansport (Indiana) Star:

“Tom Collins.”

New Yorkers have been for some time running what is known as the “Tom Collins” joke. One would think that it would at last cease to sell the artless dwellers in Gotham, but it seems to work as well now as the first day of its appearance. Jones enters a saloon or a restaurant, and meets some acquaintances. “Jones, have you seen Tom Collins?” inquired one of the party. “No,” responds Jones. “Well, he was here a few minutes ago, looking for you, and went round to Brown’s (another saloon), thinking you might be there. He wants to see you about something very particularly.” Jones goes round to Brown’s and inquires for Collins. The proprietor, who understands the joke, sends him to another place, where Collins has gone in search of him. This is kept up until Jones discovers the sell, when he immediately goes out hunting a victim upon whom he can perpetrate the same joke. All the eminent business men in New York are said to be reveling in this delightful recreation, while “corners” are at a discount and stick speculations are unknown. They might be engaged in a more mischievous, but they could hardly find a more idiotic, occupation.

That, and the fact that nobody seems to connect John Collins to the gin punch until 1881 (when a story in American newspapers suggests it’s made with Old Tom gin), suggests that Johnson was serving his Tom Collins to people at some point prior to the publication of his guide. And while the John Collins story is nice, there’s no evidence whatsoever that there’s any direct connection between the modern Collins family of drinks and the gin punches from Limmer’s.

I say “family” because now, whenever you swap out the gin for another spirit, the tradition is to change the first name to match. Consider the Juan Collins if you like tequila or the Ivan Collins if you prefer vodka. But me, I’m pondering a Jim-Bob Collins, with that good ol’ American white lightnin’.

Here’s the back of the card, by the way::

From a box sold in Warminster, Pennsylvania.

Tom Collins

1 (6 ounce) can lemon juice
1 (6 ounce) can sugar (or more to taste)
2 (6 ounce) can gin

Stir in shaker. Put about 1-1/2 ounces in each glass. Add cracked ice and soda.

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