The Best Summer Cocktail Is Also One Of The Oldest

Drink a Tom Collins and you'll understand immediately.

Summer cocktails are, understandably, dominated by those warm-weather spirits, rum and tequila. When you're hitting the bar after a day at the beach, throwing back a few on a sunny restaurant patio, margaritas and mojitos are in order. Summer means fruit, and citrus, and big icy drinks overflowing with tropical flavors. Those things are great. But there's another refreshing mixture that people have been relying on since the very birth of cocktail culture, and it's the one I order whenever I want something fresh and bright: the Tom Collins.

The Tom Collins, explained

If you've never had a Tom Collins, it's urgent that you change that. The classic version is a blend of gin, lemon juice, and either sugar or simple syrup, all topped with soda water. It's basically a fizzy lemonade spiked with the herbal flavor of gin.

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Across the decades, some combination of neglect and disrespect has led to the Collins being relegated to the realm of premade mixers, sitting on the grocery shelf next to cheap piƱa colada and strawberry daiquiri bottles. Order one in the wrong bar, as I have a few times, and you'll be handed a glass of straight gin and a can of Sprite. But made correctly with the proper fresh ingredients, the Tom Collins stands up to everything rum and tequila can throw at it as a top-tier summer drink.

The dubious origins of the Tom Collins

Like any great cocktail of the past, the origin of the Tom Collins is hard to pin down, but variations have existed since at least the 1860s. Gin had been the spirit of the working class in England dating back to the "gin craze" of the 17th and 18th centuries. Its popularity also meant it became one of the spirits that the British navy carried with them on their boats. At the same time, tonic water became a staple on navy ships as a more palatable way for sailors to consume the anti-malaria medication quinine. This combo started getting mixed together, becoming the basis for a lot of gin cocktails, and eventually limes got added to the mix to combat scurvy. It's a series of events not all that different from the creation of run cocktails like the daiquiri.

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One Tom Collins origin story traces the drink to John Collins, a bartender at a divey London hotel bar that was famous for gin punches. The "Tom" half of the name reportedly came from the use of the sweeter Old Tom gin in place of London dry.

A couple other stories place its creation in the United States, which was just as gin-crazy as Britain at the time. A man named Collins who served gin drinks in New York's Whitehouse tavern has been identified as a possible creator of the drink, along with others of the same name in New York or New Jersey.

The most fanciful story centers around a popular 1874 "prank" in which people would fool friends into thinking a man named Tom Collins was slandering them. The pranksters would then convince the friend Tom was drinking at the local bar so they would storm off and confront him. Let's be grateful the bartenders of the era were a little more skilled than the comedians.

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How to make a Tom Collins

Wherever it came from, the first clear mention of the Tom Collins is in the 1876 Bar-Tender's Guide from American Jerry Thomas, who was essentially a 19th-century celebrity bartender. His recipe lists three Collins variations with whiskey, gin, and brandy, respectively. All three are made with "5 to 6 dashes of gum syrup," lemon juice, and "1 large wineglass" full of the preferred spirit. Everything is shaken with ice, stained into a glass, and topped with soda water, with drinkers instructed to "imbibe while lively." Delightful.

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The modern version is a little less heavy-handed with the booze, but beyond that isn't made much differently. The standard recipe mixes 2 oz. of gin (usually dry these days) with 1 oz. of lemon juice, and somewhere from 0.5-1 oz. of simple syrup, depending on how sweet you like it. Those ingredients get mixed in a Collins glass with ice, and topped with 3-4 oz. of soda water. While I wouldn't discourage you from breaking out your favorite fancy gin, a Tom Collins is still delicious even with lower-shelf bottles. It's a real drink of the people.

If you find yourself needing some evening refreshment, consider giving the Tom Collins its due. It unlocks the full power of gin as a summer spirit, while carrying on the legacy of some of the first great mixologists. Just make sure you order one in a bar where there are no cans of 7-Up in sight.

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