The Tom Collins is one of the world’s perfect cocktails (indisputable fact). The combination of liquor, citrus, and sweetener is just about as fundamental as it gets, and the carbonation serves to both lengthen the drink and add refreshing effervescence. It’s simple, it’s classic, and it has about a half-dozen different origin stories. The recipe first appeared in writing in 1876, in Jerry Thomas’ seminal Bar-Tender’s Guide, but it had already been served in European and American bars for decades by then.
The presiding creation myth gives credit to one John Collins, who managed the Prince of Wales Coffee House at Limmer’s Hotel in London from 1807 to 1843. The Coffee House was a dive bar in the truest sense, and Collins presided over a colorful clientele that included soldiers, sailors and sportsmen. These customers particularly loved Collins’ gin punch, and his service was immortalized in a poem by Frank and Charles Sheridan:
My name is John Collins, head waiter at Limmer's,
Corner of Conduit Street, Hanover Square,
My chief occupation is filling brimmers
For all the young gentlemen frequenters there.
Now, whether Collins invented the punch that he served is disputed, and research suggests the dour American Stephen Price, who headed up London’s Garrick Club, was the drink’s actual creator. Price was not the boisterous personality that Collins was, however, and his creation was credited to the flashier gentleman.
Despite its London origins, gin punch would not have been made with the London Dry Gin that we’re familiar with today. Instead, the slightly sweeter Old Tom style of gin -- or even its predecessor, Dutch genever -- would have been used. The use of Old Tom gin is one explanation for why we call it a Tom Collins instead of a John Collins. While not as ubiquitous as London Dry, both Old Tom and Dutch genever are still available today, and it’s worth seeking them out if you’re interested in what a Tom Collins would have tasted like in 19th-century London.
The John Collins story sounds plausible, but I’m not convinced, as there is no mention of anything other than “gin punch” in connection with Limmer’s. The link between that punch and the drink that appeared in Jerry Thomas’ book a couple of decades later is not concrete.
There are several other Mr. Collinses to whom the drink’s creation is attributed, but the other major origin story involves something called The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. While no more credible than any other tale, it’s far odder and gives a fascinating glimpse into how people entertained themselves in the late 19th Century.
The hoax is well-documented, as it swept the United States to the extent that newspapers helped propagate it through cheeky coverage. The Gettysburg Compiler explains it for us in an article titled “Have You Seen Tom Collins”:
If you haven't, perhaps you had better do so, and as quick as you can, for he is
talking about you in a very rough manner-calling you hard names, and
altogether saying things about you that are rather calculated to induce people
to believe there is nothing you wouldn't steal short of a red-hot stove. Other
little things of that nature he is openly speaking in public places, and as a
friend-although of course we don't wish to make you feel uncomfortable--we
think you ought to take some notice of them and of Mr. Tom Collins. This is
about the cheerful substance of a very successful practical joke which has been
going the rounds of the city in the past week. It is not to this manor born, but
belongs to New York, where it was played with immense success to crowded
houses until it played out.
Long and short of it, your friends told you that Tom Collins was next door at the bar saying rude things about you and you should go confront him. When you stormed into the bar, everyone laughed at you. How does this translate to a cocktail? Well, the story goes that bartenders started feeling bad for the butts of the joke, and rewarded them with a free drink to ease their embarrassment.
The Gettysburg article says the hoax originated in New York, but it sure didn’t stay there. I’ve found articles in newspapers from Vermont to Illinois to Nevada, and pretty much every state in between. Memphis and Chattanooga were in on the fun, too. So the next time you hear someone lamenting ridiculous trends like planking or The Mannequin Challenge, you can remind them we weren’t really much more mature 150 years ago.
The Original Tom Collins
from The Bar-Tender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas. (1876)
Take 5 or 6 dashes of gum syrup (sugar syrup)
Juice of a small lemon
1 large wine-glass of gin
2 or 3 lumps of ice
Shake up well and strain into a large bar-glass. Fill up the glass with plain soda water and drink whilst it’s lively.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler's Tom Collins
2 oz. London Dry or Old Tom gin
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. 2:1 simple syrup
2 oz. chilled club soda
Combine all ingredients but soda in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until ingredients are combined and chilled. Add soda water to shaker. Pour over fresh ice in a tall glass and garnish with a lemon peel.