It is quite common for the origin of classic cocktails to be shrouded in mist. In the case of the Tom Collins, this indeterminacy has given rise to a series of very curious stories.
United States vs England
The origins of the Tom Collins are unknown and are lost somewhere in the middle of the 19th century. The impossibility of closing forever the question of the drink’s conception generated a controversy between Britain and the United States, with both sides claiming the drink as their own with equal conviction. The mystery has never been solved definitively, but a funny argument remains in the annals. In the 1920s, HL Mencken wrote that the cocktail was certainly American, because the English have no imagination in assigning names. Therefore, for example, if a recipe mixes whiskey and soda, they call it a whiskey-and-soda. Consequently, no English person would have given a cocktail a name like “Tom Collins”.
A cocktail born by a joker
According to some sources, the Tom Collins originated from a joke told in New York in 1874. A group of friends began telling people in bars that a man named Tom Collins was walking around the city, telling falsehoods about them. So it was that many began to go from one bar to another, in search of the slanderer. The joke had been told before, but in that year it reached colossal dimensions. As a result, bartenders were inspired to invent a cocktail called the Tom Collins to serve to those who entered the room asking for the elusive figure.
Jerry Thomas’s recipe
Jerry Thomas (1830–1885) is considered the father of American mixology. He was one of the very first to codify the recipes and processing of cocktails. In 1862, Thomas published The Bar-Tender’s Guide, an authentic bible of good drinking. It was the first drink book ever published in the United States. The reissue of 1876 contains the first official recipe of the Tom Collins. This fact – to return to the international controversy – is often used as evidence to support its American origin. According to Thomas, the drink is made by preparing in a shaker 5 or 6 dashes of gum arabic syrup, the juice of a small lemon, a nice portion of gin, and two or three ice cubes. After vigorous shaking, it is poured into a glass. The drink is completed by adding sparkling water.
The modern version
Today, there is no official recipe from the International Bartenders Association. Often, a Tom Collins consists of a quarter of lemon juice, three quarters of Old Tom Gin and half a tablespoon of sugar prepared in a shaker. The liquid obtained is used to fill half of a tall tumbler. The drink is completed with soda and ice, adding a slice of lemon, orange and cherry as a garnish.