True story, I went to high school with a guy named Tom Collins. While I chuckled knowingly over his name at age 15, I never really stopped to consider the cocktail itself.
It’s a great drink to make at home because it requires just a handful of ingredients—gin, lemon, simple syrup, and soda water. The Tom Collins is sometimes sneered at for being nothing more than a boozy lemonade, but it really shines when you use excellent gin—and there are lots of complex, aromatic gins to choose from.
It’s also a drink that can be subtly tweaked, by using floral Meyer lemons, replacing the simple syrup with maple syrup, adding a sprig of herbs, or replacing the soda water with a flavored seltzer.
If you don’t like gin, this is not the cocktail for you. Unlike a similar formulation made with vodka, you don’t forget that what you’re drinking is a fairly stiff drink (which is actually a helpful quality for anyone who has aged out of the charm of a hungover Saturday).
In 3-Ingredient Cocktails, Robert Simonson suggests using Old Tom-style gin to make a Tom Collins. “For some reason London dry, which makes a Martini stand up straight and packs punch into a Gin and Tonic renders a Tom Collins thin and uninteresting,” he writes.
Old Tom is rounder, sweeter and less crisply juniper-forward than London dry gins such as Tanqueray and Beefeater. Once the default gin behind most bars, wide commercial production ceased during Prohibition, but has been revived by craft cocktail culture and the small distilleries making esoteric, and delicious, spirits. Old Tom gins vary quite a bit in flavor, and in how they’re made. Some are aged in wine barrels for an amber hue, while others are clear.
I used Barr Hill Spirits Tom Cat Gin, which hangs out in new American oak barrels which give it a rich, woodsy quality. Having this Tom Collins recipe in your back pocket is a reason to add an Old Tom-style gin to your bar—it’s a way more interesting drink than three ingredients plus soda water seem capable of producing.
Classic Tom Collins recipe
Ingredients for one drink:
2 ounces Old Tom gin
1 ounce simple syrup
3/4 ounce lemon juice
Combine all the ingredients in a shaker filled with ice, and shake for a good 20 seconds. Strain into a tall glass filled with ice and top with 1-2 ounces of soda water
Tom Collins variation made with London Dry
If you don’t have an Old Tom-style gin on hand, go ahead and make the drink anyhow, but I found Simonson is right: When I tried the same ratio of ingredients with a Tanqueray, a classic London dry, it lacked something. When I reduced the simple syrup and upped the citrus though, it became brighter and more lively. It’s not quite the drink it is with an Old Tom, but I’d still take it over a gin and tonic
Ingredients for one drink:
2 ounces of your favorite London Dry gin (Hendricks works well)
3/4 ounce simple syrup
1 ounce lemon juice
Combine all the ingredients in a shaker filled with ice, and shake for a good 20 seconds. Strain into a tall glass filled with ice and top with 2 ounces of soda water.