Tom Collins. Even if you haven’t tried the drink, you’ve probably heard the name, and for good reason. It’s a classic cocktail that should have a space in everyone home bartender’s repertoire. It’s simple, it’s refreshing, and it’s made up of ingredients that you probably have on hand.
If romance novelist Joan Collins had a juice stand, this is what she’d be selling. Lemonade for grownups. Citrus, sugar, soda, and gin, served in a tall glass, beaded with condensation in the midday heat, sweating…trickling…
Sorry, where was I?
The Tom Collins, that’s right. Named after not Joan Collins, and not even Tom Collins, but John Collins, the headwaiter at London’s Limmer’s Hotel in the 1820s and 1830s. According to cocktail historian David Wondrich, John Collins was famed for serving a sweetened punch of gin, citrus, and chilled soda water. That he didn’t actually invent the cocktail didn’t seem to matter; John was good at his job and had an effervescent personality. Affability apparently goes a long way toward winning you favor, and a beverage named in your honor. At any rate, Wondrich points out that the the honor didn’t last too long. As American drinkers started to prefer their collins being made with English Old Tom gin, the name morphed to reflect the change. John became Tom, and the Tom Collins was born.
If you’re looking for an excellent happy hour cocktail to take the edge off once you get home, you could do worse than the Tom Collins. Here to help you make the best Tom Collins you’ve ever tasted is Jim Kearns, head bartender and partner of The Happiest Hour in New York City.
Kearns certainly knows his way around a cocktail; he’s worked at The NoMad Hotel and the famed Pegu Club, tended bar in Death & Company’s early days, and helped launch agave spirit pantheon Mayahuel. At The Happiest Hour, Kearns holds court over a horseshoe bar on the main floor, where his “you pick em, we pour em” motto allows guests to customize specialty drinks to suit their own tastes. Downstairs, The Happiest Hour’s second bar channels a bygone and fairytale era of picture-perfect postcard vacations. It’s all flamingos, palm trees, and technicolor sunsets, liberally spiked with the best spirits and the freshest fruits.
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What makes for a really good version of a Tom Collins?
Jim Kearns: Like all simple cocktails, a truly great Tom Collins is dependent solely on the freshness and quality of its ingredients. Fresh squeezed lemon juice, properly made simple syrup (equal parts, by weight, sugar and water, to make a syrup that’s exactly 50 brix), fresh, chilled soda, large ice, and good gin (some people make a case that it should be made with Old Tom gin, but any gin you like will make a delicious Collins) are really what it takes. The glass is important, too. It’s not called a Collins glass for nothing!
What are some tips and tricks that a home bartender should know to really make this cocktail sing?
All of the above, and, when making the drink, jigger it out carefully and shake it over large ice cubes, before straining it into the glass, over fresh ice, and topping it with soda.
What are some common missteps people make when attempting this cocktail? Any common mistakes we should be sure to avoid?
Don’t use soda that’s been open for a long time, bottled/frozen juice, or try to build it in the glass without first shaking it. The initial shake adds effervescence, texture, dilution, and helps to incorporate the ingredients, making them more soluble for the soda.
Could you share a recipe with our readers?
Ours is a little unorthodox. We keep the fresh lemon juice in the picture, but we give it a little spin, by incorporating a house made grapefruit syrup. Please see the recipe, below:
Happiest Hour’s Tom Collins
- 1 oz lemon juice
- 1-1/2 oz grapefruit syrup*
- 1-1/2 oz Spring 44 Old Tom
- Shake with three ice cubes
- Strain, over fresh ice, into a Collins glass
- Top with soda (small, 10 oz bottles of soda are best)
- Garnish with a Tillen Farms Merry Maraschino cherry (all natural cherries from Washington)
All measurements by weight. 50 Brix.
- 32 oz grapefruit juice
- 16 oz granulated sugar
- 8 oz grapefruit oleo saccharum**.
- **Peel grapefruits with a knife (not a peeler) before juicing them for the syrup.
- Rest the peels with equal parts, by weight, white sugar.
- Muddle them or place them in a freezer bag and roll them out, to release their oils.
- Continue to rest them until all of the sugar has been broken down by the oil in he grapefruit peels.