Toast: Tom Collins Cocktail (1878)

Jerry Thomas - a.k.a. The Professor - Mixing Cocktails

This is the second article in the “Toast” series of classic cocktails.
Check out the first – the Bourbon Old Fashion Cocktail.

Perhaps it is a bit vulgar to post a classic cocktail recipe on the anniversary of Mother Carrie Nation’s first “smashing” at the Dobson Saloon in Kiowa, Kansas in 1899. But it is Friday, after all, and Fridays in the summer demand a refreshing cocktail like the Tom Collins.

Tom Collins CocktailAnd like all good cocktails, the origins of the Tom Collins are steeped in legend. Here’s what we know for certain:

  • RECIPE: A Tom Collins is comprised of gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda water. The recipe has its roots in Fizzes, which has essentially the same ingredients.
  • FIRST PUBLISHED: The first recipe for a Tom Collins appeared in The Bartender’s Guide by the legendary “Professor” Jerry Thomas in 1876. Much has been written about Thomas, who is considered by many to be the grandfather of the American Cocktail. I recommend to you, in particular, David Wondrich’s excellent book Imbibe, which includes a thoroughly researched depiction of what little we know of the man, and a number of Thomas’ original recipes.
    Some will claim that the name comes from the use of Old Tom Gin (a sweeter gin than London Dry) in the original cocktail, but this isn’t true. Thomas gives several recipes for Tom Collins – one with gin, one with whiskey, and one with brandy.

For the gin Tom Collins, Thomas gives the following recipe:

Take 5 or 6 dashes of gum syrup
Juice of a small lemon
1 large wine-glass of gin
2-3 lumps of ice
Shake well and strain into a large bar-glass. Fill up the glass with plain soda water and drink while it is lively.

  • NAME: It is believed that the name comes from a rather obscure joke that circulated some of the more rowdy drinking establishments in New York, referenced at the time as the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. The general idea is that you would go up to a friend or a stranger and ask them if they’d seen Tom Collins. When they said no, you would reply along the lines of “Well, you’d better find him soon, because he’s saying terrible things about you,” and then proceed to tell the person how you heard they would steal anything they could get their hands on, et cetera. Others in the bar would, of course, be in on the gag and would also support your claims regarding this mischievous, but ever-absent, Tom Collins. Now, whenever someone asks you what people did before cell phones and the internet, you can give them a solid answer.

If you’ve never had a true Tom Collins before, think of it as a sparkling gin lemonade. It’s sweeter than a gin and tonic, but still light enough to make this a particularly warm-weather beverage. When you order a Tom Collins today, it is almost universally expected you will get one with gin, though some bars who are delving more into cocktail history will actually ask you if you want a gin, vodka, whiskey or brandy Tom Collins. Some areas of the United States add a splash of grenadine, which I personally dislike (but to each, their own).

The standard glassware is, of course, the Collins glass – a tall, but narrow circular glass. Garnishes are traditionally a lemon wedge with an optional cherry.

I asked the talented Jon Lawson, bartender extraordinaire at Minneapolis’ Eat Street Social, if he would demonstrate the assembly. In a city busting at the seams with amazing cocktail bars that blend traditional and modern tastes, Eat Street Social is my neighborhood spot and a favorite of many. They were kind enough to let me watch them in action.

The Recipe

Fill a Collins glass and a shaker with ice.
Add 3 parts gin, 2 parts fresh lemon juice, and one part simple syrup to the shaker.
Shake vigorously.
Add a splash or two of club soda to the shaker and strain into the glass.
Garnish with a lemon slice and cherry (optional).