It’s a sweltering hot afternoon. Dewpoint high enough to fog my glasses. And my work is done. Time for a Tom Collins.

I like this old classic. More refreshing than beer, lighter (and faster to make) than Mai Tais or Swizzles, the Tom Collins is a bright and simple refresher of gin, lemon, and soda.

Apparently it was once the fashion to mix the Tom Collins as an after dinner drink, a long, slow sipper that could be stretched through social evenings with gatherings of friends. (In 1941, Crosby Gage wrote  that “It is in these after-dinner hours that the Highball, the Collins, the Rickey, the Gin and Tonic Water hold high place in millions of American homes.”) I think of them more as sunshine drinks, to be consumed when the day is long and the hot work done, the dinner hour distant, and cool refreshment and relaxation the new priorities of the day.

Though nearly every mixed drink these days is called a cocktail, the Collins is technically a separate drink, a subclass of the “sparkling sours” category, as Gary Regan call them (The Joy of Mixology, 2003.) You could think of the Tom Collins as a gin sour topped up with a healthy dollop of soda, and served in a tall glass. The “tall glass” presentation is arguably what makes the Collins a Collins, as it permits a large portion of soda compared to, say, the gin fizz, which is the same drink served in a smaller glass with considerably less soda, or the gin sour with no soda at all. The “Collins” glass itself has become stylized over the years; the modern Collins glass is typically taller and narrower than a standard tumbler.

Tom Collins, photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Tom Collins cocktail

Historians tell us that the Tom Collins likely descends from the gin punches that were ubiquitous in the 17th and 18th centuries; it is basically a very simple punch done up one glass at a time. (I recommend David Wondrich’s Imbibe! to all who are interested in the history.)

By the time Jerry Thomas added it to his seminal Bartenders Guide in 1876, the formula was already pretty well set—a shot of spirits, fresh lemon juice and sugar, ice and soda. It appears that by the time Thomas recorded it, the name “Tom Collins” had been freed of its strict association with gin punch, and now indicated a category that could accommodate gin, whiskey, or brandy.

By the mid-20th century, “Tom Collins” was again unequivocally a gin drink. The American whiskey version has become the John Collins, or sometimes the Colonel Collins. (The Genever version is also known as John Collins.) The obvious ethnic naming clichés abound: there is the Ivan Collins (vodka), the Jose Collins (tequila), the Mike Collins (Irish whisky), the Ron Collins (rum), and so forth. Very cute. My advice is to order the Tom Collins if you expect a London Gin Collins, and order anything else by the name of the spirit involved.

Here’s the basic Tom Collins recipe:

The Tom Collins

  • 2 oz. London Dry gin (Bombay Dry, Beefeaters 24)
  • 1 oz. fresh lemon juice
  • ¾ oz. simple syrup (1:1)
  • soda water to top
  • cherry and orange for garnish
Shake first three ingredients with ice until well chilled. Strain over ice into a Collins glass, or other tall glass. Top with soda water. Garnish with a slice of orange and a brandied cherry.

In the earliest days of the Tom Collins, the gin at hand would have been Old Tom or Genever. I tried the Old Tom styling, and while it is interesting as a way to understand the evolution of the Tom Collins, I will stick to the modernized London Dry formula as a brighter and more refreshing combination. Old Tom is sweeter than the London Drys, with a bit heavier mouth feel and less juniper; it might be a good choice if your lemons are unusually tart, as it seems to have a softening effect on the drink’s flavors. (The Old Tom available in my market is Hayman’s; other brands might produce a different result.)

The Tom Collins Cocktail (detail), photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.

There are a handful of useful variations you can make of the Tom Collins. The most obvious, and most likely to be required, is to adjust proportions to suit your mood and the pungency of your lemons. You can also experiment with gin types—the history of Tom Collins is a long experiment with gin fashions, from Genever to Old Tom to London dry, and there’s no reason not to try some of the less junipery, more botanical New Western Dry gins. I haven’t tried that experiment, but I would bet that citrus-friendly gins like New Amsterdam or the cucumber-heavy Hendrick’s could work very well as a base for Tom Collins. 

If you want to punch up the flavor a bit, you could always try muddling the lemon peels with a bit of sugar to release some of the oils. And I’ve seen experiments with bitters, though this would remove us from the realm of the classic Collins, and start us on the slippery slope toward slings or swizzles. Not a bad idea, but not, strictly speaking, a Tom Collins, either.