Thursday Night Loaded: Lemons, Hoaxes And The Tom Collins

This will be the last column for a while that focuses on gin drinks, I swear. In fact, I chose tonight’s refreshment for two reasons. First, because thanks to its many variations, it makes a nice segue to other beverages based on other spirits. And second, because for a few brief hours this week, it looked like summer might actually arrive on time and once the sun breaks through to parch this prairie, it’ll be time to skip to the back of the bar guide and crack the chapter entitled “Tall Drinks”.

So let’s forget for a moment that the sun has cruelly abandoned us and consider one of the most enduring of summer coolers….

TOM COLLINS
2 oz gin
1 oz fresh lemon juice
2 tsp extra fine sugar
club soda
Shake gin, sugar and lemon juice well with ice. Strain into a collins glass filled with ice. Top with soda. Garnish with lemon slice and/or orange slice and/or maraschino cherry.

While the tom collins is the first of its line, the “collins” has evolved into a species of tall drink unto itself. Thus, you can swap out the gin for pretty much any liquor you prefer and wind up with a most agreeable refreshment. And the nomenclature is all pretty straightforward. Use whisky and you’ve a whisky collins. Vodka, a vodka collins. Tequila, brandy and wine work the same way but things become a little complicated with rum which can become a rum collins or, if white rum, a charley collins. The john collins, meanwhile, uses Dutch genever gin instead of London dry.

The collins glass mentioned is a tall, slender tumbler holding between 10 and 12 ounces. Odds are pretty good you have a few in your cupboard as they’re still commonplace even though the drink for which they’re named is rarely mixed in homes these days.

Be sure to pack your collins glass well with ice as you do not want to overdo the soda. According to reputable cocktail scribes, the ratio of soda to gin should be three ounces to two. And, while it may sound reckless, venturing towards one to one has its own rewards.

As for the fresh lemon juice, don’t cheat. Uncle Kingsley never turned up his nose up at commercial sour mix. I do.

Now, while Amis’ willingness to tilt a bottle of store-bought lemon syrup into his gin had no doubt a great deal to do with expedience, I suspect one can also assume that the mixes available in his day weren’t as cloyingly sweet as what’s on offer in our postmodern supermarket. And I doubt they were as atomically sour. Or as phosphorescent.

Few things have debased modern drinking more than the ubiquity of pre-made sour mix.

An interesting fact: 100 per cent of bartenders in Fredericton, New Brunswick, when polled, will tell you that a tom collins is made with gin and collins mix. I know because I conducted the survey and I can assure you that my sample was both large and well stratified. You see, during my time there, I’d become convinced that for this drink to have survived so long that its name would appear etched, as I dimly recalled, on the side of my grandfather’s venerable cocktail shaker and on the drink menu of every bar I’d ever entered, it must be something really delicious.

Yet, what I was drinking was not delicious. It was indistinguishable from Lemon Fresca with a kick. And as I witnessed tom collins after tom collins assembled by bartenders wielding hoses — a press of one button, a quantity of gin squirts from the gin nozzle, another and a sickly green fluid emits from the mix nozzle, then a last sends a fizzy topper from the soda nozzle — I began to think that perhaps the tom collins was one great bartending hoax.

Which, I note tangentially, wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate considering the drink derives its name from the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. Eric Felton explains how the prank worked in his Wall Street Journal drinks column,

A friend would run into you on the street and, with great concern, tell you he just overheard someone named Tom Collins at a bar down the street saying hateful and libelous things about you. You race to that bar to confront the bounder, where you would be told that Tom Collins had just left for a bar several blocks away. When you get there, Collins would already have decamped for another joint across town. As you chase all over the city, your friends convulse with laughter.

I have to admit I find it hard to believe that this practical joke became as widespread as Felton describes. Carousers roaming the streets of New York City cruelly tricking their friends and associates into acting like fools in public? Seems rather far fetched. And yet, Felton says the Tom Collins prank spread beyond Manhattan and became the thing to do right across the country. Newspapers wrote articles about the slanderous Tom Collins. Songs were written about his scurrilous tongue. Then, finally, he was immortalized in Jerry Thomas’ 1876 Bartender’s Guide, his name attached to the above recipe (which the shrewd drinker will note is just a rechristened Gin Fizz).

Over time, the recipe has been toyed with and some interesting collins variations have been spawned. I’ll end off this week’s column by rattling off a few of those….

BRANDIED BANANA COLLINS
1 1/2 oz brandy
1 oz banana liqueur
1/2 oz lemon juice
club soda
Shake brandy, banana liqueur, lemon juice well with ice. Strain into collins glass packed with ice. Top with soda. Garnish with lemon and banana slices.

COEXISTENCE COLLINS
2 oz vodka
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1 tsp extra fine sugar
1 tsp kümmel (substitute with aquavit in Saskatchewan)
club soda
cucumber peel (2 inch strip, 1/2 inch wide)
Shake vodka, lemon juice, sugar and kümmel with ice. Strain into collins glass packed with ice. Top with soda. Add cucumber peel. Garnish with lemon twist.

MINT COLLINS
2 oz gin
4 large mint leaves
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1 tsp extra fine sugar
club soda
Muddle mint leaves with gin in a bar glass. Add lemon juice and sugar and shake well with ice. Strain into a collins glass filled with ice. Top with soda. Garnish with mint sprig and/or lemon slice.

TEX COLLINS
1 1/2 oz gin
1 1/2 oz grapefruit juice
3/4 oz honey
Shake gin, grapefruit juice and honey well with ice. Strain into collins glass packed with ice. Top with soda.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5’10” tall and he was born in a place. He’s not there now. He’s sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It’s “Girl From Ipanema”, thanks for asking.

You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.