History of a Hong Kong bar favourite – the Tom Collins cocktail

From its humble beginnings in the late 1800s, the Tom Collins cocktail has become a bar favourite in Hong Kong and is simple enough to make effectively at home

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2016, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2016, 6:54pm

We may be certain that the Tom Collins is one of the great cooling summer cocktails, but it is impossible to know for sure where, when or by whom it was first mixed, or how it got its name.

There are several theories about the latter question. One is that it derives from a practical joker’s hoax that spread all over North America in 1874. This involved telling credulous barflies that a fictitious character called Tom Collins was drinking in another bar, and slandering them to the customers. The outraged victim would then set off on a wild goose chase to find him.

It became an immensely popular prank. Bartenders who were in on the joke would keep redirecting Collins’ irate pursuers on to the next establishment, and newspapers got in on the act by reporting sightings of him.

It may well have been this then recent phenomenon that inspired the pioneering bartender Jerry Thomas to give the drink that name in the 1876 edition of his classic Bar-Tenders Guide– where the drink appears under that name for the first time – but there are other theories as to its origin.

One is that Tom Collins is a corruption of John Collins – a recipe for a drink of that name having been printed earlier, in 1869, possibly originating in England where a near relation, gin punch, was a well established favourite tipple.

Another possibility is that the spirit used for early Tom Collins cocktails was Old Tom gin, a sweeter spirit than London Dry which eventually became the dominant style.

Whichever is really the case, it is unlikely that it took until the late 19th century for the idea of putting gin and lemonade together to occur to somebody. Both had been around for a long time.

“It’s very possible that it was accidentally made beforehand. I imagine someone had made a fresh lemonade and spiked it with gin somewhere in rural England. I’d be very surprised if that hadn’t happened before it was documented by Jerry Thomas,” says James Barker, group beverage manager for the Jia Group.

Barker knows his cocktail history. Last month he won the Hong Kong and Macau leg of Diageo World Class, arguably the world’s most prestigious cocktail competition, and in September will fly to Miami, Florida, to compete in the global finals.

Not only is he a first-time World Class entrant, Barker has never previously entered a cocktail competition of any kind.

“It’s probably not going to be the last though,” he says. “It’s very exciting, the rush you get.”

Barker has previously worked in bars in the United Kingdom and Kuala Lumpur. He came to Hong Kong to work with Sam Jeveons, who he calls his “mentor figure”, at the Old Street bar consultancy, before taking up his present position.

It was Old Street that introduced him to the Jia Group, when he and Jeveons worked together on a new cocktail menu for 208 Duecento Otto. They chose to feature new interpretations of three classic cocktails – the New York Sour, the Daiquiri Noir, and the Tom Collins.

“A Tom Collins is designed for hot, balmy, summer afternoons – refreshing, light, approachable. It’s really hard not to love. It’s a combination of big bold London Dry Gin with lemon juice, sugar and soda. It’s really simple, as a lot of the best things are,” he says.

The Tom Collins formula has evolved over the years.

Jerry Thomas’ 1876 recipe called for gin, lemon, gum syrup and soda, but when the Savoy Cocktail Book was published in 1930, its author, Harry Craddock, listed the Tom Collins not as a single cocktail but as a category of its own, with three variants.

He included one close to the Jerry Thomas recipe, with powdered sugar replacing the gum syrup; a Tom Collins Whisky, with whisky replacing the gin; and a John Collins made with “Hollands gin”, or genever.

The Collins glass – a cylindrical chimney glass, similar to a highball glass but somewhat narrower – has remained a constant.

Assuming Old Tom gin was the base of the original Tom Collins – and nobody knows for sure – the drink has probably got drier over the years, with London Dry Gin taking over, and less of an emphasis on sugar.

Although Jerry Thomas used syrup rather than sugar, various bartenders over the years have advocated muddling fresh lemons with sugar so the grains abrade the zest, which they believe adds a little zing to the drink.

Barker goes the syrup route, and uses soda water rather than sparkling mineral water because he thinks it gives the drink “more pop”.

“It’s traditionally a lot more tart, but I think it’s more balanced using a syrup made from two parts sugar to one part water. It cuts down on the sugar, so you get a little more flavour. Take one part of syrup, two parts lemon juice and three parts gin, and then top up with soda,” he says.

The combination of soda, lemon and sugar in some form is crucial. Commercial “lemonades” such as Sprite and 7-Up will not serve.

Customers are welcome to specify the gin of their choice, and Barker likes to experiment, but the day I dropped in he was using Tanqueray 10. Good gin makes a big difference.

The Tom Collins is a popular drink in many bars around town, and simple enough to make effectively at home.

However at least three other interesting variants are available along the Hollywood Road/Wyndham Street strip, and you could do a very pleasant “Collins Crawl”, starting at Duecento Otto and stopping off at Quinary, The Woods, and Ori.Gin, tasting interesting variations in each.

At Quinary, celebrating its fourth anniversary, Antonio Lai’s Oolong Tea Collins is made with Absolut Elyx vodka and an oolong tea cordial. It’s a fairly radical departure.

The Lavender Tom Collins at the Woods is a delicate interpretation of the classic, while for something more robust you could finish up at Ori.Gin for a Spring Collins, made with slow-cooked cucumber gin, elderflower syrup, mint, lemon juice and soda.

Whichever you go for, the fact that the Tom Collins is not particularly high in alcohol should not lead you to think it is a less than serious drink.

In the words of David Embury, author of the classic The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, published in 1948, “This is a long drink, to be consumed slowly with reverence and meditation”.

208 Duecento Otto, 208 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, tel: 2549 0208

Quinary, 56-58 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2851 3223

The Woods, LG/F, 17-19 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2522 0281

Ori.Gin, 48 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2668 5583