These days when a cocktail recipe calls for gin it is almost certainly talking about London dry or Plymouth gin, but there are infact two other strains that sadly don’t get much attention these days – Genever and Old Tom. Genever, or Dutch, gin is very different to English gins, being made from malted grains making it somewhat similar to unaged whisky. They are generally lower proof than other gins, and are often aged for a short time, but more on Genever another time – tonight it’s all about Old Tom.
Old Tom gin is sweeter than London dry, and was very popular during the eighteenth-century. At that time gin production was fairly clandestine, and the resulting spirits were often quite harsh with many impurities. In order to try and cover up this harshness gin makers sweetened the drink with sugar, making it more palatable and hiding the impurities. The invention of the column still in the nineteenth-century and the resulting creation of London dry gin saw Old Tom gin slowly loose its foothold, and these days it is all but extinct.
This causes something of a problem for cocktail aficionados who like to make classic cocktails, as many recipes either explicitly call for Old Tom gin or probably would have been made with it originally. You can make an approximation of Old Tom by adding some sugar syrup to a regular dry gin, and until recently that was your only option if you wanted to truly recreate some of the cocktail classics. However, Christopher Hayman, whose great-grandfather created Beefeater gin, recently launched Hayman’s Old Tom gin, a recreation based on a traditional eighteenth-century recipe for Old Tom.
Being something of an obsessive collector of unusual spirits, I rushed out and picked up a bottle of Hayman’s the minute I learned it was available here in the UK. Hayman claims this gin is an accurate recreation of Old Tom, and while I cannot vouch for that claim having never tried real Old Tom, it was definitely a very enjoyable gin and quite unlike any other I have tried.
Tasted neat Hayman’s Old Tom gin is noticeably sweet, though it’s not as sweet as I perhaps expected, and nowhere near as sweet as a liqueur. It has hints of orange and lemon zest, and while the botanicals are less upfront than many gins they are definitely there and linger gently in the after taste. It’s a subtle, nicely balanced gin and reminded me a lot of Plymouth gin with its clean, soft flavours. This was an exciting prospect, as Plymouth is probably my favourite gin for mixing cocktails, so I set off in search of some historic recipes to try it in…
- 2 shots / 60 ml / 2 oz Old Tom gin
- 1 shot / 30 ml / 1 oz lemon juice
- 1 bar-spoon sugar syrup
- Build ingredients over ice in a tall glass and top off with soda water. Garnish with a lemon zest twist.
As ever with old cocktails, the origins of the Tom Collins are uncertain and much disputed. Some assert that the drink is so-named because it originally used Old Tom gin, while others believe it was named after the Tom Collins hoax of 1874, a strange happening you can read more about here. Given that the first written occurrence of the Tom Collins, from Jerry Thomas‘ 1876 edition of the Bartender’s Guide, listed brandy, whiskey and gin versions of the drink all under the name Tom Collins I am inclined to believe the later story, but both stories seem perfectly plausible.
Leaving history aside, the drink itself is a simple but tasty drink with a refreshing nature that will make it a perfect libation once the winter months have passed. The lemon provides a nice tart zing, with the sweetness of the sugar syrup and Old Tom pulling back the sourness. The Old Tom remains fairly subtle in the background but does provide an extra depth to the flavours. Enjoyable, but I wanted something a little stronger so the Old Tom can really shine through.
- 2 shots / 60 ml / 2 oz sweet vermouth
- 1 shot / 30 ml / 1 oz Old Tom gin
- 1 bar-spoon Maraschino
- 1 dash aromatic bitters
- Stir all ingredients with ice and strain in to a cocktail glass. Garnish with a quartered slice of lemon.
I’ve looked at the Martinez before, but decided to return to it so I could look at a more traditional, vermouth heavy, recipe. This is one of the first recorded recipes of the Martinez, from the 1887 revision of Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders’ Guide. Using a combination of Old Tom gin and Carpano Antica vermouth, along with Fee Brothers Aromatic bitters (which are apparently the closest available approximation of the originally specified Boker’s Bitters), hopefully means this is fairly authentic to the original recipe.
As you might expect from the ingredients the Martinez is a sweet cocktail, but it avoids becoming cloying. The combination of vermouth and bitters creates a very aromatic drink, but the Maraschino provides a funky undertone and works nicely with the background notes of the gin. The Martinez is a very heavy cocktail, but on a cold winters night it has a lot to offer. However, I can’t help but feel the more modern Martinez, with the increased amount of gin and the orange bitters, presents a more balanced mixture – to my modern palate anyway.
- 2 shots / 60 ml / 2 oz Old Tom gin
- ¼ shot / 7.5 ml / ¼ oz Maraschino
- ¼ shot / 7.5 ml / ¼ oz fresh lemon juice
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- Stir all ingredients with ice and strain in to a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon zest twist.
This one comes from CocktailDB, and also turns up in the Savoy Cocktail Book. The Casino Cocktail really showcases the properties of Old Tom, which provides the dominant sweet gin flavours of the drink. The small amount of lemon juice adds a citrus bite which balances the drink well, with the Maraschino adding extra interest in the finish. The Casino leaves a lingering mix of Old Tom and Maraschino funkiness which is really enjoyable, and the overall result is a very satisfying cocktail.
- 1 shot / 30 ml / 1 oz Old Tom gin
- 1 shot / 30 ml / 1 oz dry vermouth
- ½ bar-spoon Maraschino
- ¼ bar-spoon Absinthe
- 3 dashes orange bitters
- Stir all ingredients with ice and strain in to a cocktail glass. Garnish with a Maraschino cherry and a lemon zest twist.
The Tuxedo Cocktail comes from Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual of 1882. Interestingly it also turns up in the Savoy Cocktail Book, though in the fifty years that separates the two the Old Tom has been swapped out for dry gin – no doubt a reflection of the changing tastes as people clamoured for drier and drier cocktails as the twentieth century progressed.
The Tuxedo features a strong gin presence upfront, with a nice lemon zest tang. A sweet funk from the Maraschino swirls in background with the orange bitters, and a long finish of Maraschino gradually reveals more and more anise from the Absinthe. The flavours are all very understated, but they work really well together to produce a subtle but interesting cocktail.
Hayman’s Old Tom is an interesting gin, and definitely brings a certain something to cocktails which no other gin I’ve tried does. Its sweetness, combined with the interesting but subtle botanical flavourings and the citrus zest notes, works really well in mixed drinks – particularly those like the Casino and Tuxedo which allow the gin room, using the other ingredients as subtle accents. Here’s hoping we see more distillers making ventures in to the Old Tom market – it will make a change from yet another citrus-infused dry gin…
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