It’s time again for one of our favorite contributors, John, to show us how to make a delicious cocktail. He got back to basics with this one, and explored the details of the classic Tom Collins. A group of friends went to Samai Distillery and Tiff took these gorgeous photos while Cait sat in her room in London, aching with FOMO. Ahem, anyway. We’ll let John tell you all about it.
Months ago a fellow C+T reader and contributor, the lovely Kiira, approached me with a dilemma: how do you make a Tom Collins? I knew enough to tell her the basics – gin, lemon juice, sugar, soda water – but didn’t have much advice to give. While I have a great deal of affection for the G&T – and have spent a fair amount of time consuming them and pondering its finer points – the Tom Collins is not something I ever got into. But it’s never too late to learn, and so Tiff and I rounded up a few friends at the Samai distillery to do a full immersion session on a recent afternoon.
A Little History
Accounts for the Tom Collins origin story vary. David Embry attributes the name to the type of gin used (more on that below), but that seems dubious. According to David Wondrich, who has opined on the subject in various spaces, the Tom Collins has a long, occasionally disreputable, and storied history. It likely originated as a punch in the bowl of English barkeep John Collins before migrating across the Atlantic and landing in New York. Of particular interest, though, is his account of the drink’s rise to prominence in the US in the late 19th century, during which time it evolved, in name at the very least, from a John Collins to the drink we know today:
That Americans would respond to a prank resulting in a free – and delicious – beverage with agitation and aggression says a lot about our national id, but I digress.
This is a very straightforward drink, but also provides a great mechanism for tasting gins. In the name of science, we sampled an Hayman’s Old Tom variation; a classic London Dry, Broker’s; a lighter, more floral variation of London Dry, the popular Bombay Sapphire; and, a bridge between London and New World gins, Bulldog.
Old Tom Gin is frequently described as the missing link between Genever gin – a maltier variation originating in 16th century Holland – and London Dry. While it ultimately fell out of favor until recently, for a period in the mid to late 19th century Old Tom style gins dominated the American cocktail world. In all likelihood it was the gin originally used in the Tom Collinses that most Americans were drinking at the end of the century. While there are no real hard and fast rules to its production, Old Tom is generally sweeter than London Dry. Hayman’s version, one of the first to recently reenter the market, still connects with a solid punch of juniper and herbal flavors, but softens the blow with a hint of sweetness and a citrusy aroma. If you don’t think you’re a gin fan, this is actually a great way to get acclimated with this liquor before moving on to a classic London Dry.
A relatively new player on the London scene, Bulldog uses a broad array of botanicals in the compounding process, including lotus leaves, poppy, and longan, a cousin of the lychee. It has a gentler, mellower flavor profile, and in more complex drinks it can be overwhelmed a little bit. That said, it is well complemented by lemon juice and is an excellent choice in a Tom Collins. Like the Hayman’s, Bulldog would be a great gateway gin for those not yet sold on the merits of the spirit.
For the sake of brevity, you can find my thoughts on Broker’s and Bombay Sapphire here.
We’ve written before about how to make simply syrup. I like a 1:1 ratio of water to sugar, shaken together in a container rather than mixed over heat. As you increase the amount of sugar, not only will the syrup get sweeter but it also get thicker, which will affect the viscosity of your drink.
The lemon juice was squeezed fresh prior to making the drinks, as it should be. There is actually a decent amount of research out there that indicates lemon (and lime) juice may be best between 4 and 10 hours after juicing, as opposed to immediately after; both options are preferable to anything more than a day old. Regardless, fresh is best, especially in a drink like this.
Soda water options in Phnom Penh are somewhat limited, but in general when it comes to cocktails I prefer Singha. I find it has a higher level of carbonation than Schweppes, so you can maximize the effervescence in the drink without overly diluting it.
Variations abound, but the general recipe is as follows, served in a Collins glass over ice:
- 2 oz gin
- 1 oz lemon juice
- 1 oz simple syrup
- Soda water
You can shake the gin, syrup, and juice in advance then pour it in the glass over ice and add the soda. If you don’t want to deal with the extra fuss, building the drink in the serving glass and simply stirring it is fine, too (and my preferred method in this case). Finish it off with a lemon twist dropped into the drink.
For our tasting, I used a slightly smaller glass that only holds about 8 ounces total. In order to fairly judge the various gins, I also consistently poured just 3 ounces of soda water. Personally, I found this perfect – you get to enjoy the pleasures of a tall drink without it being so big that by the time you’ve had the last drop it is overly diluted and, heaven forbid, warm.
I also deviated from the recipe depending on which gin was being used. With the Old Tom and the Bulldog, for example, I reduced the simple syrup to ¼ ounce and ½ ounce, respectively.
The group generally preferred the Bulldog variation, with the Hayman’s a close second. It was crisp, citrusy, and refreshing, with a great balance of herbal, sweet and sour. The beauty of the drink is its simplicity and malleability, making it easily adaptable to personal taste. Don’t be afraid to play around and find your own perfect recipe!
All photos by Tiffany Tsang. Please request permission for use.