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The Tall Tales of Tom Collins (and how the drink came about)

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"I was taking a drink just now at Andy Parle's, when I overheard an individual denouncing you in the vilest manner. He said you loafed on your friends, borrowed money and never returned it, owed bills in every quarter of the city, and were the biggest beat he knew. I inquired who he was and he said his name was Tom Collins. He can be found at Parle's."

And so began The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874, which begat The King of Cooling Drinks, the Tom Collins. The hoax kicked off with a prankster telling a group that they were being talked about by the loose lipped Tom Collins, and then sending them on an angry goose chase to find him.

In 1874, the Steubenville Daily Herald reported that the hoax "belong[ed] to New York, where it was played with immense success to crowd houses until it played out...". The paper continued, "frantic young men rushed wildly through the streets of the city on Saturday hunting for libelous Tom Collins." They were often directed to the local bar, where Tom Collins had just left for another bar across town.

Newspapers propagated the hoax by printing sightings and urging citizens to find the slanderer. The Decatur, Illinois Daily Republican printed "Tom Collins Still Among Us," in June 1874. "This individual kept up his nefarious business of slandering our citizens all day yesterday. But we believe that he succeeded in keeping out of the way of his pursuers. In several instances he came well nigh being caught, having left certain places but a very few moments before the arrival of those who were hunting him. His movements are watched to-day with the utmost vigilance." The papers kept the story going by reporting false sightings and projecting Collins' next move.

So, how did the Hoax turn Drink?

According to Wall Street Journal columnist and cocktail historian Eric Felten, "It doesn't take much to imagine how Tom Collins came to be a drink. How many times does someone have to barge into a saloon demanding Tom Collins before the bartender takes the opportunity to offer him a cocktail so-named?"

That's where it gets tricky. The first Tom Collins recipe dates to the 1876 edition of Jerry Thomas' The Bartenders Guide.

The Recipe is:

(use small bar-glass)

Take 5 or 6 dashes of gum syrup

Juice of a small lemon

1 large wine-glass of Gin

2 to 3 lumps of ice;

Shake up well and strain into a large bar-glass. Fill up the glass with plain soda water and imbibe while it is lively.

However, there's an old "John Collins" poem that's cited as evidence that the John Collins drink was created in England by John Collins, a waiter at Limmer's Old House in London. Some people claim that the Tom Collins was just an adaptation that substituted a sweeter gin for the whiskey-ish gin, and that it was named "Tom" Collins because the brand of gin was Old Tom.

While that story has been disputed, beverage historians have yet to agree on a common story. Whatever the case, it's a delightful summer drink, known as "the king of cooling drinks." It used to be the official drink of the summer. In my book, it still is.

I'm making it with: 1-2 oz gin, juice of lemon, simple syrup (boil 2 parts sugar, 1 part water until syrupy), 4 oz soda water. Build it on the rocks in a Collins glass. Garnish with cherry. And make sure you don't order it at a bar. They'll use lemon-lime mix.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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