Friday, May 11, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Tom Collins

Maybe it’s the drink’s name that accounts for its decline in popularity. Tom Collins. It’s an actual name, like Shirley Temple, and we all know what that means. No booze.

The irony is that the Tom Collins isn’t named after a real person. Except that it is. Cocktail historian David Wondrich, in his book Imbibe!, traces the drink back to some doggerel composed by descendants of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It venerated one John Collins, a waiter at a London hotel famed for its gin punch. That concoction made its way to America, odds are brought here by British soldiers. But the drink that turns up in “Professor” Jerry Thomas’ canonical 1876 Bar-Tender’s Guide is a Tom Collins. The reason why is most likely an unrelated craze that swept the nation, as crazes are wont to do, two years earlier. You meet a friend, ask him if he knows “Tom Collins,” and when he says no – unless he does know a Tom Collins; then I suppose the bit falls apart – you say, “Well, he knows you, and he was just around the corner sullying your good name!” Hilarity allegedly ensues when your friend goes, to use one of my mother’s favorite words, gallivanting all over town.

I know times were simpler then. But honestly? I’d rather watch the Kardashians than put up with that kind of crap. And I hate the Kardashians.

I like to think some enterprising barkeep served this drink to every benighted fool who stumbled into his tavern in search of phantom malefactors. The sheer simplicity of the recipe, probably not far removed from John Collins’ original U.K. rendition, is one of the reasons why the Tom Collins was for decades among the most popular of cocktails. It’s also a remarkably adaptable one, suited to any base spirit since in essence it’s your basic sour. Make it with bourbon and you have a Colonel Collins. Irish whiskey and it’s a Michael Collins. Scotch is Joe, rum is Pedro, rye is ... hell, I don’t know, Cletus.

What ultimately hurt the Tom Collins was the era of convenience. Many bars began relying on ready-made Collins mixes, some of them, God help us, in powdered form. Shades of The Simpsons episode in which Bart and his buddies venture into neighboring Shelbyville to recover their stolen lemon tree. Egghead Martin Prince, drunk on camaraderie, braces a kid with his own beverage stand who says, “This is Country Time lemonade mix. There’s never been anything close to a lemon in it, I swear!” It’s one of those time-savers that’s no savings at all.

David A. Embury, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, says of the Tom Collins: “This is a long drink, to be consumed slowly and with reverence and meditation.” He also observes that, “strictly speaking, a Tom Collins is not a Tom Collins unless it is made with Old Tom gin.” (Another reason, perhaps, for the drink’s Stateside rechristening.)

I have rhapsodized before about the miracle that is the now-available-again Old Tom gin. And I am here to tell you, brothers and sisters, that Reverend Embury is right on all counts. I have had a Tom Collins made with London dry gin. And I can testify that a Tom Collins prepared with Old Tom is a different beast entirely. The fuller, sweeter flavor not only gives the drink a spine but a body. Made for languorous afternoons, this traditional version belongs on any list of classic summer coolers. I’d put it ahead of the Dark and Stormy (dark rum and ginger beer) and just behind the Caipirinha (the national cocktail of Brazil, and who’d know better about cooling drinks?). Don’t listen to what other people are saying about you. The dog days are coming. And once you have a Tom Collins done right, you’ll pray for temperatures to rise.

The Tom Collins

2 oz. Old Tom gin
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. simple syrup
2 oz. club soda

Shake the first three ingredients with ice. Strain into a tall chilled glass filled with ice. Add club soda. Garnish with a cherry and a lemon or orange wheel. If you’re making it with London dry gin, increase (read: double) the amount of simple syrup to taste.