As I sat drinking my hard earned Tom Collins after a busy day at Gin Festival HQ, I started to wonder about how such a simple drink may have changed over time. Obviously, Tom Collins is a classic but even classics vary, like good vintages of wine (or gin); what changes could have been made? How much does the drink in front of me resemble one from London in the roaring twenties? Unlike the massive variety of tonic waters that we have now, it’s unlikely that the soda’s all that different but what about the gin itself?
So, a gin or two down, I decide it’s time for some amateur sleuthing, armed only with Google and a curious desire to know as much about gin as possible.
What I’ve discovered so far is that my beloved, botanical heavy Whitley Neill is not (unsurprisingly, with it’s modern combination of flavours and small batch production) the kind of gin that would have been used in any drink a century or two ago. Instead, it would be Old Tom gin, a softer, sweeter drink. Old Tom is not a particular brand of gin nor a way of making it, it is the name given to the unregulated, sweet gin that was prominent until the mid twentieth century, whose quality, ingredients and strength varied massively. It was made through a different process than a modern London Dry but had that same, juniper-y goodness that we all know and love.
This is the gin of the gin palaces, of mother’s ruin and Hogarth’s Gin lane: romantic, delicious and only just creeping back into modern distilleries. The Old Tom that left us is often seen as the missing link between the Dutch jenever (the national drink of Holland) and gin; it is gin, but not as we know it! Having been the dominant kind of gin throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, it is no coincidence that Old Tom sits snugly between it’s better known siblings. It is sweeter and softer than a London Dry gin, though just as complex, and it has a sharper, drier taste than jenever. This sweetness would come from ingredients such as liquorice and large quantities of cinnamon.
Old Tom is the base for many of the earliest known cocktails, it was used both here in the UK and by exciting, upcoming bartenders across the pond but with gin, as with everything, fashions come and go. In post-war Britain, only a small number of distilleries remained in operation and sadly Old Tom was not amongst the gins that they produced. This could easily have been the end for a part of English heritage but the resurgence of popularity of small batch, innovative gins that moved us away from the classics of Gordons, Tanqueray and Beefeater has given gin, as a whole, a lease of life.
We all know that gin is the thing at the moment and it’s fascinating to see how our love for the product has given a forgotten variety a chance to shine again with new, old and returning distillers looking to everything from botany, history and chemistry degrees for inspiration. The contemporary interest in authenticity has led bartenders to search to create the perfect, accurate drink, and so, giving in to demand, a small number of companies have begun to make Old Tom again. The Dorchester in London was the first to do this, wanting to make a decent Martinez and commissioned the City of London Distillery to create one for it. Hayman’s, Jensen’s and Tanqueray soon followed, using either old family recipes or historically accurate but new ideas and it’s been a roaring success.
After reading so much about the history of gin, I decide it’s time to come properly back into the present and go for the best bit, the taste test!
There are a number of Old Tom gins being produced at the moment, each a flavoursome and unique offering. First off, I’m going to start with the gin that’s the most like what would have been drunk 150 a years ago: Hayman’s Old Tom. This gin is made to an 18th century, family recipe and seems to me, to only be slightly sweeter than I’m used to but very fruity and there’s a strong bit of juniper in there too (thank God). Onto the Jensen’s- this is much more like it! A light but complex gin, sweet but not sugary and perfect with only a small splash of tonic. And finally, Professor Cornelius Ampleforth’s Bathtub Old Tom, the drink is almost as intense a mouthful as its name; there’s a strong amount of cinnamon and cardamon in here but it’s still recognisably gin, and a delicious one at that.
If you’re craving an authentic Tom Collins or just want to try gin as it was a century ago, don’t forget to have a look at our online shop and see what treasures you can find!
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