Smile Politely

Cocktails 101: The Tom Collins

Despite what the weather today would have us believe, spring, finally, after far too long, is in the air.  There are some signs of greenery here and there, and on Sunday I had to take off my sweater.  I know.  I dusted off my porch settee (everyone should have a porch — and a settee on it) and started thinking about summer.

Specifically, as is my wont, I started thinking about what I’d drink this summer.  Tiki drinks in ridiculous mugs, hefeweizens, fresh-squeezed mimosas on hot Sunday mornings — it got pretty elaborate.  But what I sat down and made, on Sunday afternoon, was my go-to drink for when the weather gets hot.  I turned to an ancient cocktail that, while easily elaborated, is hard to improve: the Tom Collins.

The Tom Collins is a member of the Collins family of cocktails -— or, more accurately, drinks.  Collinses, in general, are not made with bitters, and sometimes without sugar, and always tall with something bubbly, making them not, technically, cocktails.  They are highballs or, well, Collinses.  In general, to make a Collins you take a base liquor, soda water, sweetener, and citrus juice, and stir gently over ice.  You can mix everything but the soda water in a shaker and then combine with soda in the glass, but unless your sweetener is a heavy syrup or liqueur that’ll take some agitation to blend into your drink, you may as well save yourself the cleanup and build the Collins in the glass.

A Tom Collins is a Collins made with gin as its base, but technically it’s a Collins made with Old Tom Gin, a mildly sweetened, less juniper-y gin that, until recent years, was no longer available in the US (or much of anywhere, really).  For the last 100 years or so, a Tom Collins has been made with a nice dry gin (say Plymouth), a couple teaspoons of sugar, lemon juice, and soda water.  Luckily, the explosion of classic cocktail culture has made all cripples whole and all debts repaid (or something like that), and there are several Old Toms on the market again.  The easiest one to get in Illinois is Hayman’s Old Tom, which is very similar to a lightly sweetened Plymouth, albeit with a more citrus nose that works beautifully with the lemon juice in the Tom Collins.  You can also find Ransom Old Tom, a strange hybrid of Old Tom and Genever-style gin (it’s briefly aged in wood, and barely sweetened) at The Corkscrew — of the two, I prefer Hayman’s for my Tom Collinses.

The Collins structure, obviously, is easy to vary.  Switch whiskey for the gin and you have a John Collins.  Switch in a (blanco or reposado) tequila and you have a… [Stereotypically Mexican Name] Collins.  Rum’ll make a straightforward Rum Collins.  If you’re feeling flush, switching champagne for the soda water will make a French 75 (idiots will insist that this drink is properly made with brandy; they are mistaken).   Switching lime juice for lemon and dropping the sugar altogether will make a Gin Rickey — feel free to switch up the spirit in this one as well — a crisper, more refreshing drink for those of us who laugh in the face of sweeteners.  Finally, experiment with using a sweet liqueur or flavored syrup instead of the sugar in order to add an extra dimension to the Collins: most recently, I used the common cheat of slipping in St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur (a spirit so versatile and popular that it has become known as “bartenders’ ketchup”) instead of simple syrup, and ended up with a delightfully floral, French-accented Collins which I’ll call a Tomas Collins.  The Floradora, an old drink with a delightful name, is really a Collins in disguise, tarted up with lime juice, raspberry syrup, and in the case of the Imperial Floradora (the one that we should all aspire to drink), champagne.  If you insist on further switching bubbles to, say, ginger ale or cola, you enter the land of the Dark ‘n’ Stormy, the Gin Buck, the Moscow Mule, and the Mamie Taylor.

Finally, a word on glassware: traditional Collins glasses are, in capacity, about 10 ounces.  Any larger and you’ll want to increase the amount of everything to compensate for the soda water it’ll take to fill your glass.

Tom Collins

  • 2 oz gin (Old Tom-style, for preference)
  • 1/2 – 1 oz lemon juice (to taste) 
  • 2-3 tsp simple syrup 
  • soda water

Fill a tall glass (10 oz, for preference) with ice.  Add first three ingredients, stir briefly, then top with soda water.  Stir again to combine.


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