Earlier this month I looked at four Old Tom gins, comparing what I believe to be the only commercially available Old Toms of any merit available today – Hayman’s Old Tom, Dorchester Old Tom, Both’s Old Tom and Secret Treasures “Old Tom Style”. Tasting notes are all very well but spirits like gin are at their best in a well made cocktail, so any comparison wouldn’t be complete without a look at how they worked in mixed drinks.
Given its status as an almost defunct ingredient you won’t find many modern recipes using Old Tom – though with its ever increasing availability I can’t wait to see what people start coming up with – so I decided to look at two classic drinks that originally called for Old Tom but still get made today with London drys. The Tom Collins is a simple gin drink which will really showcase the gin, and the Martinez is a very complex drink that will highlight how well the gin mixes with other ingredients.
In addition to the four genuine Old Toms I also tested the substitution David Wondrich suggests in Imbibe! – a London Dry sweetened with a small amount of gomme syrup (if you don’t have that, simple syrup will suffice). Dave suggests Tanqueray so Tanqueray I used, along with about half an ounce of syrup which brought it to a sweetness roughly level with Hayman’s. Neat it doesn’t taste much like any of these Old Toms, lacking the fruity, floral quality, but in a mixed drink with there be much difference?
The Tom Collins is a drink where strong, upfront gins really shine, so it came as little surprise that the Secret Treasures “Old Tom Style” gin worked really nicely, its upfront juniper taste and strong botanical flavourings standing up well to the lemon creating a punchy drink that really makes itself noticed. The Hayman’s also worked well, its botanicals opening up a little more with the addition of the soda water creating a refreshing Tom Collins with some interesting citrus notes.
The more floral Old Toms didn’t fair quite as well, with the Both’s Old Tom not really standing up well against the lemon and soda water, creating a fairly light mix of floral and botanical notes that was a little on the sweet side for my tastes and didn’t quite work. The Dorchester Old Tom was a little better, with its less intense floral flavours and increased juniper creating a soft, fruity Collins that was interesting, if a little lacking in oomph.
The Tanqueray-based Old Tom substitute created a fine Tom Collins though it lacked the slightly fruity edge the real Old Toms lent to the drink. The Dorchester and Hayman’s gins also created fine drinks, each with their own subtleties, but the “Old Tom Style” was the clear winner here.
The Martinez is a complete contrast to the simple Tom Collins, using complex ingredients like sweet vermouth and maraschino that require a gin that mixes well and won’t clash with all the other flavours going on in the drink. When made right it is, in my opinion, one of the finest classic cocktails there is and just as worthy as its brethren the Martini and Manhattan. Indeed it’s rapidly becoming what might be my favourite cocktail – and I don’t normally like choosing favourites.
Like many older cocktails various recipes with differing ratios exist, but I chose to use a more modern recipe which, in addition to being the one I prefer, uses a larger ratio of gin than the original, which seemed appropriate given what I’m testing here. For the vermouth I used Antica Formula, a deep and aromatic vermouth that works wonderfully in a drink like the Martinez.
Unfortunately where in the Tom Collins the Secret Treasures “Old Tom Style” gin’s upfront juniper was a strength, here it has the exact opposite effect. The gin is so dominating it clashes with the other ingredients knocking the overall flavour off balance. In an effort to improve the drink I tried it with a more traditional 2:1 ratio of vermouth to gin, and also tried using a less intense vermouth like Martini & Rossi. While both steps did help better the drink the subtle fruit notes in the gin got lost with the lower proportion of gin, and the result was still no winner.
As I knew from previous experience, the Hayman’s works very nicely in a Martinez, lending a balanced layer of botanicals with a hint of fruit and citrus that works very nicely with the other ingredients. The Dorchester Old Tom too worked very well, with it’s more intense floral notes producing a very fragrant drink that thanks to backbone of juniper and other traditional botanicals remained well balanced. On a side note if you’re ever in London and feeling flush pop past the Dorchester for a house Martinez – lovingly made with their own Old Tom and Punt-e-Mes, it is an expensive treat but a really delicious one.
While Hayman’s and Dorchester Old Tom both produced very, very good cocktails, the Martinez that the Both’s Old Tom yielded was really out of this world. I was concerned the potent florals might overwhelm the drink, but instead they work beautifully. The aromatics of the vermouth, the funk of the maraschino and the intense flavours of the gin all combine to create a cocktail that really is superlative. If I had to complain I’d say that the drink is a touch sweet, but the result is so good that can be forgiven. Forget maybes, with this gin the Martinez just became my favourite cocktail.
Over the past few weeks I’ve tested out these gins in other classic gin cocktails and it’s become clear that the Hayman’s and Dorchester Old Toms are by far the most versatile when it comes to mixed drinks. The Dorchester is a fantastic gin that has a floral quality not really found in modern gins, but retains a modern edge which keeps it from becoming too esoteric, while the Hayman’s is a well balanced gin that doesn’t stray too far from current London Drys, but has some interesting botanicals that set it apart and really come out when mixed in a drink like the Martinez.
The “Old Tom Style” and Both’s gins are both superb, but their intensity at two ends of the Old Tom spectrum means they have to be used in the right drink to avoid throwing it off balance. When used correctly though, they do work wonderfully – a Martinez made with Both’s Old Tom is one of the best cocktails I think I’ve ever had, and in addition to the Tom Collins the “Old Tom Style” creates a mean Martini.
If you don’t have access to Old Tom? I wouldn’t go to the bother of setting aside a bottle of gin with added gum syrup just for use in Old Tom drinks. Just use a decent London Dry with fairly upfront botanicals and throw in a dash of gum if you find you prefer the sweeter taste. It’s not going to recreate a drink with the same flavours as you would get from a true Old Tom, but will almost always yield a drink that still tastes pretty good.
If I had to pick just one Old Tom I think I would likely go for the Dorchester, given its versatility combined with its leaning towards a more floral flavour profile which I find really appealing. However, it is by far the most expensive gin I’ve ever purchased and not easily available, making it a poor choice for mixing all but the most special cocktails with. I have little doubt I will be reaching for my bottle of Hayman’s with far greater regularity…
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