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.

July 31, 2008 - 5:28am
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