Happy Hour History: The Tom Collins

Drink Features

Given its less than glamorous status among contemporary drinkers, you’d never guess the Tom Collins has one of the more colorful origin stories out there. A lot of damage has been done to the cocktail’s reputation. From a generation of bartenders killing it with sour mix to your grandmother liking it, the Collins has taken its share of lumps.

But for all the abuse, it’s actually not a bad cocktail. Gin, lemon juice, sugar, soda — when done right, it’s light and refreshing, like spiked homemade lemonade.

The first official Tom Collins recipe dates back to 1876 when it appears in bartender Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tender’s Guide. Known as “The Professor,” Thomas was something of a celebrity in his day) and laid much of the groundwork for American cocktail culture.


But to get the full story we have to start at Limmer’s Hotel in 1860s London where a waiter named John Collins got himself associated with a gin punch recipe that is very similar to the Tom Collins we know today. Collins and his cocktail were so popular they even got immortalized in rhyme:

My name is John Collins, head waiter at Limmer’s,
Corner of Conduit Street, Hanover Square,
My chief occupation is filling brimmers
For all the young gentlemen frequenters there.

Not long after, Holland gin got replaced by the sweeter Old Tom gin, which is one possible explanation for the name change. By the start of the 20th century, however, Old Tom gin fell out of favor and dry gin became the default moving forward.

But wait. There’s another theory about the name out there, and it’s called The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. The hoax, which was popular in New York and Pennsylvania that year, was basically a prank people would play on one another when out drinking. It went something like this:

OLIVER: I say, Hiram, have you seen that Tom Collins fellow? He has been all about town speaking of you in a manner most unflattering.

HIRAM: Where might I find this ne’er do well?

OLIVER: He is known to frequent the saloon just around the corner.

HIRAM: Then let us adjourn to there post haste so that we might have a word with this rapscallion.

Upon getting to the new location, the pranked party would ask around for Tom Collins only to be met with laughter. Bartenders soon got hip to the bit, and began serving up the cocktail when people asked for the man.

Newspapers of the day even got in on the fun; though, initially, even they fell for the hoax running stories about the nefarious Collins and his serial slanderings. Fortunately, these days we’re not so gullible.


See also: here and here.

Tom Collins Recipe
collins square copy.jpg
2 oz. gin — Old Tom if you have some
1 oz. simple syrup
1 oz. lemon juice
Club soda

Directions: In a shaker, add the gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and some ice. Shake for 10-20 seconds, and strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top it off with club soda, stir, and garnish with a lemon.

Enjoy while listening to this.

Jim Sabataso is a writer, part-time bartender, and full-time cocktail enthusiast living in Vermont. Follow him on Twitter @JimSabataso.

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