The Tom Collins is among the most famous of historical cocktails. Yet despite its notoriety, one glaringly obvious question remains unanswered: Who the hell was Tom Collins, anyway? There are two competing stories about the name: It seems that the often overlooked Mr. Collins was either a fictitious scoundrel or a freaking bar cat! Regardless of which is correct, one certainty prevails: The Tom Collins has the most fascinating back-story of any classic cocktail.
Shake the gin, lemon juice and syrup with ice and strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top with soda and garnish with a lemon slice.
The Collins was first written about in Jerry Thomas's 1876 book The Bartender's Guide, but Tom Collins was well known two years prior, at the very least. Tom's height in popularity actually peaked in 1874, during the legendary Tom Collins Hoax. During this widespread social phenomenon, bar-goers would play a prank on a friend by saying they had just visited "Random Bar #1," where they overheard a fellow by the name of Tom Collins making outlandish claims about the prank victim. Furious, the friend would then seek out the offending Mr. Collins at "Random Bar #1," only to be told by the participating bartender that Tom Collins had just left the bar, but was known to be heading to "Random Bar #2". The prank's victim would chase the fictitious Tom Collins all around town, until his friends, fully satisfied, would confess to the prank.
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The prank became so popular that Tom Collins eventually evolved into an infamous social figure publicized in newspapers warning of his debauchery. Once informed of the hoax, the press actually played along, helping to build Tom Collins's reputation as a social renegade who was always one step ahead of his pursuers.
Some hold the cocktail was named after the widespread social hoax. While a great story, it seems more likely that the hoax was named after the cocktail, which best features a type of gin called Old Tom Gin. Old Tom Gin is a style of gin that was popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. Old Tom is a slightly sweetened, more rounded style of gin that is critical in drinks such as the Martinez and the Tom Collins. Beware of Old Tom's charm, however. Widespread obsession with Old Tom Gin devastated the 18th century British economy when alcoholism became so widespread that history's first drug war was launched against the spirit.
The era's infatuation with Old Tom Gin today seems most analogous to our society's accessibility to and reliance upon Starbucks. Among various other alcoholic habits, Tom Gin fanatics would approach neighborhood bars that had wooden cat silhouettes hanging on the walls -- hence the second origin story, that the drink is named after a bar cat. They would then deposit a coin in the cat's eye, alerting the bartender inside to pour a shot into a tube that extended out from the cats paws. The person would place their mouth on the tube and drink the flowing gin. Now, that's drive-thru service!
Both stories, believe it or not, are true. Unfortunately, history isn't definitively clear about which Tom - the cat or the smack-talking vagabond - is the real one. Either way, if you're sweating your ass off as much as the rest of us in this heat, there may be no better drink than a Tom Collins made appropriately with Old Tom Gin.