The Twisty History of the Tom Collins

You think memes are obnoxious now? You should have been around in 1874. Here’s how it worked: You walked into a bar in New York or Philadelphia (memes didn’t spread globally back then). Some wag would ask, “Have you seen Tom Collins?” and you, unfamiliar with anyone by that name, would say no. You would then be told to watch your back, because this Collins had been talking trash about you. If the prankster hadn’t cracked by then, you’d be off, looking for this trash-talking Collins in a blind rage.

The punchline? There is no Tom Collins. Yes, that’s what passed for a hilarious viral joke in 1874.  

This epic run-around that would ruin friendships if tried today was all the rage in the 19th century, earning it the name the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. Songs, which can be found in the Library of Congress, were even written about it. W.H. Boner & Co. of Philadelphia, for example, published “Tom Collins Is My Name,” in 1874.

“Tom Collins” wants to see you! He says, “You are a beat!”
“Tom Collins!” Don’t you know him! ’Tis you he wants to meet!
In here just a moment since he’s down on you, that’s sure!
He just went round the corner, into that other store.

Newspapers propagated the joke by printing news of real-life Collins sightings and urging citizens to find the culprit. For a short while, Tom Collins was the most interesting, and elusive, man alive. It would make sense, then, that the libation of gin, lemon juice and simple syrup that bears Collins’ name was an homage. But the truth of the matter is a little more complicated.

“No one knows the answer,” says Philip Dobard, director of the Museum of the American Cocktail, which is dedicated to recording and celebrating the history and evolution of mixed drinks. It’s not uncommon for the origins of even famous cocktails to be shrouded in mystery, though it would be a neat joke if the punchline to the Tom Collins joke turned out to be an actual gin punch.

The first Collins cocktail can be traced back as early as 1814, to Limmer’s Old House in London, a popular coffeehouse–dive bar frequented by sporting types and the famous. The bar’s headwaiter, John Collins, was known for the gin punch he served and maybe (again, shrouded in mystery) even invented. Either way, there’s a song about that too.

My name is John Collins, headwaiter at Limmer’s,
The corner of Conduit Street, Hanover Square;
My chief occupation is filling of brimmers,
To solace young gentlemen laden with care.

Cocktails Collection - Tom Collins

A “real” Tom Collins.

It would be two years later, in 1876, that the name Collins “officially” came up again, this time in Jerry Thomas’ The Bar-Tender’s Guide: How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant’s Companion Vol. II. For many, this makes perfect sense: Thomas named the Collins concoction after the hit joke of a couple of years earlier. But Tom Collins is made with Old Tom gin, “a sweetened gin or genever, which was also very common at the time,” Dobard says. That could also explain the name. “The Tom and John Collins are very similar to gin punches that have been around since the late 18th century,” Dobard explains. The only difference is the base spirit.

Today the Tom Collins is part of a larger cocktail family, all roughly the same mix of gin, lemon, sugar and carbonated water, with slight variations. The Tom Collins is made with Old Tom gin; the John Collins with London dry. But according to Jared Brown, a master distiller and co-founder of Sipsmith, the first traditional copper-pot gin distillery in London, no one really knows which is which. “The name has been commonly used for drinks made with either spirit,” Brown says. “Incidentally, to my knowledge, no one has actually re-created real Old Tom gin — I have original recipes, and no one has yet come close.”

If you want to get deep, it just might mean that the Tom Collins you’re looking for doesn’t exist after all.

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