Tom Collins

If you make a Tom Collins, let me see!  

Tag a photo with #socialhourcocktails on Instagram.

Overview

The Tom Collins is the patriarch of all tall, fizzy, refreshing cocktails. 

An indispensable classic, it epitomizes why simplicity equals cocktail greatness.  Yes, it is merely a gin sour (or Gimlet depending on how you define that cocktail) with lemon juice instead of lime, served in a tall glass over ice and topped with soda water.  But a well made Tom Collins is its own brand of singular magic.

 

While easy to make, knocking a Tom Collins out of the park a bit more challenging.  Temperature, level of carbonation, balance, and dilution need to be in optimized.  Unlike most drinks where all the ingredients are thrown into the mixing vessel at once, here the sequence of events is key.  The methodology below will get you the most out of your Collins.  An explanation of the "why" behind this thinking is the commentary section. 

Using Other Styles of Gin - Go For It!

As you’ll see in the history section below, the style of gin commonly used in a Tom Collins has shifted over it’s lifespan.   So while London dry/dry gin is the prevailing choice today, it works with all walks of gin.

 

In fact, because it's such a reliably tasty drink and allows the gin's true colors to show through, the Tom Collins is the perfect vehicle to take a gin you’re unfamiliar with for a test drive, from genever (which makes it a John Collins), to old tom gin (which is arguably more historically accurate) to all the “new western” gins coming out of the craft scene featuring and untraditional botanicals and flavor profiles.  

Since old toms vary so much  - some are barrel-aged, some are sweetened - the quantity of sugar may need to be adjusted from brand to brand to achieve proper balance. Scaling back to ½ oz simple syrup is a good place to start, you can always add more.

Variations and Relatives

Like most classics, the Collins is a formula ripe for revisions, whether you’re simply swapping in a new spirit or adding in some muddled fresh ingredients.  Here are some of my favorites.

rye whiskey, social hour, tom macy, cocktail, classic cocktail

Recipe

  • 2 oz gin

  • ¾ oz lemon juice

  • ¾ oz simple syrup

  • chilled soda water - ideally from a small, unopened bottle

  1. Combine gin, lemon juice and simple syrup in a shaker. 

  2. Fill a chilled collins/highball glass with ice.

  3. Fill shaker with ice, shake for 3-4 seconds.

  4. Pour in 2 ounces of soda water in collins glass.

  5. Strain cocktail into glass. 

  6. Top with more soda, if needed/desired.  

  7. Garnish with an orange half wheel - if desired.

The Perfect Collins Technique

Many recipes for this drink, and others like it, call for the ingredients to be combined in the glass, including the soda water, and stirred or rolled - which means poured back and forth between another glass or shaker - to mix.  I have two problems with this:  one, it doesn’t get the drink cold enough and two, it kills too much carbonation. That's why my approach is to shake the gin, lemon and simple syrup separately, but briefly.  This chills and combines them without creating much dilution.   Then I pour the soda water into the glass first, rather than at the end.  This way, when you strain in the drink everything is instantly mixed without any stirring, avoiding more carbonation disruption.

 

The Colder Everything is the Better

If you can, put the glasses in the freezer ahead of time, and even the gin (I generally don’t advocate for freezing spirits because it doesn’t allow for enough dilution, but since we’re adding soda water, dilution isn’t an issue).  And of course the soda water should be as close to freezing without crystallizing as possible.

 

Soda Water

Use soda water with the highest level of carbonation you can find.  Stay away from lightly carbonated sparkling water like Perrier or Pellegrino.  While wonderful on their own, they don’t hold their own in cocktails.  Schweppes and Canada Dry are my usual go-tos, Boylan’s is excellent too.  The smaller 10 oz bottles are ideal.   You'll go through them quicker, so there’s less chance of them going flat.  Naturally, for best results use bottles that are freshly opened, they’re never quite as bubbly after that.

The Tom, and John, Collins Story

The original name for the Tom Collins was the John Collins.  The John Collins was named after the headwaiter at Limmer’s Hotel, a London hotspot in the early 19th century.  The drink was his personal specialty.  We don’t exactly know what Headwaiter John’s original recipe was, just that it was a type of gin punch -  specifically a variant the Garrick Club Punch, the eponymous cocktail of another London Establishment -  and that he appeared to have used Old Tom Gin (David Wondrich chronicles all this in extensive annotated detail across sections in two of his seminal works - Punch and Imbibe!). 

 

Limmer’s Hotel packed some distinguished clientele who people tended to listen to - they were what we might call “influencers” today.   Though word of mouth they drove the John Collins to widespread popularity.  By name anyway, the original recipe surely was corrupted somewhat.   By the 1870s, it had made it to the new world and was a hit in America.  

 

How did it become the Tom Collins?  For one, while it was initially it was made in the states with a base of genever aka Dutch gin, which was a more common back bar fixture at the time, old tom gin was on the rise.   So that may have influenced imbibers to corrupt the name as they passed it on in a game of tipsy telephone.  Another contributor to the switch appears to have come in the form of a popular barroom gag of 1874 barroom, which was surprisingly well documented by the media.   It went something like this: a customer would approach a fellow patron and tell them that they heard a man by the name of “Tom Collins” at the bar down the street talking trash at their expense.  Enraged, the wounded patron would charge off to confront Mr. Collins, only to find a bar full of participators in on the joke who would tell him that he had left, continuing to spill insults, and went to another location.  And on and on it went.   

I guess this stunt and cocktail rising to prominence at the same time was enough to get the name to stick. Regardless, And once it did, the mold was set forever.  It’s a bit odd (to me anyway) that a drink regarded as an emblem of classic cocktail integrity was derived from a frat boy joke of it’s day.   But obviously history doesn’t care about my feelings. 

 

After prohibition when London Dry style gin conquered all it supplanted old tom gin as prevailing base of the Tom Collins, and it remains so to this day.  

 

As for the John Collins, it was relegated to the version of the drink made with genever.  However, after prohibition genever all but disappeared in United States and eventually, since genever unable to defend itself, a collins made with bourbon assumed the “John” moniker.   

 

Adding to confusion, a bourbon collins was also sometimes called a Colonel Collins, which is how I’ve always known it because it was frequent fixture of my parents and grandparents social hour routines.  And, seeing as those were is the inspiration for this site, it seems wrong to call it otherwise here.  Plus, genever has seen a resurgence in recent years and I think it has earned the right to reclaim it's title.  So, in the recipes above you'll see I've kept the genever version under John, and bourbon under Colonel.

John Collins

  • 2 oz genever 

  • ¾ oz lemon juice

  • ¾ oz simple syrup

  • chilled soda water

  

Prepare as above.

Tom Collins vs. Gin Fizz

The Gin Fizz is another old classic enjoying an uptick in popularity in recent years.  It’s made of gin, lemon, sugar, served in tall glass and is topped with soda water.  Which begs the question, what’s the difference between it and the Tom Collins?  Honestly, nothing really.

 

The two drinks are separated by technical categorical differences which were more widely recognized in the 19th century (once again, you can thank Mr. Wondrich for my knowledge of this).  Both were composed of a spirit, citrus, sugar and soda water, but a collins traditionally came over ice in a bigger glass and was meant to be nursed leisurely, whilst a fizz resided is a smaller vessel with no ice and was meant to be knocked back swiftly.  So, tall fizzy drink with ice: collins, tall fizzy drink with no ice: fizz.   

 

However, today's bartenders don’t adhere to these parameters as strictly and the terms are often used interchangeably.  Any drink with soda water can be called either a collins or a fizz.  I presume because Gin Fizz sounds cooler than a boring old Tom Collins.  Is this cocktail blasphemy?   Technically yes, I suppose.  But I don’t really have a problem with it, to me it’s splitting hairs, and I drink are better with ice.    

 

As for the Gin Fizz, I'm a huge fan of the classic variation on it with egg white: a Silver Gin Fizz.  You can get that recipe, and more collins vs. fizz commentary, on the Silver Gin Fizz Page .  

 

 

 

 

 
 

Glass Size: 12-14 oz

The Tom Collins is such a pervasive drink it has it’s own glass: the collins glass, which are tall, narrow and holds about 12 ounces.   These are perfect.  But the drink can be served in anything it’ll fit in, like a highball glass - which are technically a bit small than a collins - or a large rocks glass.  The latter may lack the visual panache, but who cares?  The most important thing is to not to go much bigger than 14-16 ounces, otherwise you’ll run into one of three issues: 

  

  1. Adding with too much soda water and over-diluting the drink.

  2. Having to make a perilously giant cocktail to fit the glass.

  3. Serving drinks in glasses that are 3/4 full.  

   

If pressed, I’d take the second one.

Colonel Collins

  • 2 oz bourbon 

  • ¾ oz lemon juice

  • ¾ oz simple syrup

  • chilled soda water

Prepare as above.

Raspberry Grapefruit Collins

  • 2 oz gin 

  • ¾ oz lemon juice

  • ½ oz grapefruit juice

  • ½ oz raspberry syrup

  • ¼ oz Campari (optional)

  • chilled soda water

 

Prepare as above, garnish with expressed grapefruit peel.

 

© 2019 socialhourcocktails.com  All Rights Reserved

tom@socialhourcocktails.com Brooklyn, NY

  • Instagram Social Icon
  • Pinterest Social Icon
  • YouTube Social  Icon