The world of cocktail ingredients is an exciting and fast changing one at the moment. A few years ago there were many spirits that were called for in classic recipes but simply not available, but today that list of lost ingredients is rapidly shortening. In just the past year or so ingredients like crème de violette, pimento dram and batavia arrack have become easily available, and just last month at Tales Rob Cooper announced that Crème Yvette will be seeing the light of day within the next twelve months, with a Forbidden Fruit currently in development.
As a huge fan of gin I’ve always considered Old Tom to be something of a holy grail, so when at the start of the year I learned English distiller Hayman’s was producing one I was over the moon. Since getting hold of the Hayman’s I’ve also become aware of several other modern Old Tom reproductions, none of which are particularly easy to get hold of, but that are nonetheless out there if you really want them. Here I’ve assembled the main four bottlings that are currently available, and hope to assess which are worth picking up, and exactly what Old Tom gin is all about.
This post features tasting notes of the four gins, and joined by a companion post testing the Old Toms out in a few cocktails that originally called for Old Tom. Unfortunately like most people I’ve never actually had the chance to try a classic Old Tom gin, but I have spoken to several who have so hope to be able to give at least a rough indication of which gins adhere most closely to the original Old Toms.
So what exactly is Old Tom?
Back in 1688 Dutchman William of Orange overthrew James II of England to become King William III. After William succeeded he banned import of French brandy and introduced heavy duties on German spirits, making Dutch spirits like Genever, the original Dutch gin, cheaper and therefore more popular. The English began to develop a taste for gin, and with production on home soil entirely untaxed and unregulated we began to make our own. Unlike the barley-based Genever our gin was made using readily available grain and entirely unaged.
Owing to the lack of taxes Gin became cheaper than beer and wine, which meant it became the popular choice amongst the poorer classes particularly in London where poverty and extreme overcrowding gave many people a strong reason to want to drink a lot of alcohol. This period of time became known as the “Gin Craze”, and at one point an average of 2.2 gallons of gin was being drank every year per person in the country. Considering most outside the cities stuck to beers that were more easily produceable that’s a lot of gin – for comparison the average Briton consumed just 3.7 litres of any type of spirit in 2003.
The initial gins produced in England were not particularly high quality, with relatively crude distillation techniques and a strong incentive to cut the spirit with products like turpentine and sulfuric acid to increase profit margins. As a result, it was common for sugar to be added to gin to mask these imperfections and make the gin more palatable. As gin production improved these imperfections were slowly eliminated, but having gained a taste for sweetened gin sugar continued to be added, and it’s this style of gin that became known as Old Tom.
Nobody knows exactly how the name Old Tom came about, though the popular theory relates to Dudley Bradstreet, a Londoner who sold gin illegally from his house through rather elaborate means. The story goes that he erected a sign outside his house in the shape of a cat, with a pipe leading from the cats paw back in to his house. A thirsty customer would deposit their money, call out “Puss, give me two pennyworth of gin!”, and Bradsheet would pour them a shot of gin down the pipe. This sign of a tom cat allegedly resulted in the gin becoming known as Old Tom, and whether true or not the packaging of both classic and modern Old Toms often has a black tom cat on it.
As distilling techniques improved in the nineteenth century with the invention of the column still and other refinements, it became less necessary to add sugar and gin slowly began to move away from the sweeter styles to the newer London Dry style. By the 1930s and 1940s Old Tom had fallen out of favour as tastes moved towards drier drinks, and for the past few decades Old Tom has been all but extinct. Anyway, enough history – to the gins…
Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
Hayman’s Old Tom gin was created in 2007 by Christopher Hayman based on what is claimed to be an original recipe from his family archives (Chirstopher’s grandfather created Beefeater gin, and Chris himself oversaw production of Beefeater for fifteen years). It is currently the only Old Tom gin that is widely available through traditional distribution channels.
Hayman’s has a sweet, slightly fruity nose, and a sweet initial taste with suggestions of lemon and other citrus plus a juniper undertone. The finish brings out a little spiciness, perhaps coriander, as well as further juniper and a mild sweetness. While the sugar definitely sets Hayman’s apart from other gins, the flavour profile isn’t vastly different to a number of London drys. Nonetheless, an interesting gin with a lovely smooth taste.
Hayman’s Old Tom Gin is available at select off-licenses in the UK, and will shortly begin distribution in the USA via Haus Alpenz.
Secret Treasures “Old Tom Style” Gin
Part of the “Secret Treasures” collection, a selection of premium spirits marketed by German company Haromex, this gin was produced by master distiller Hubertus Vallendar in Kail, Germany using juniper berries from the Apennines and a double-distillation process. This is a limited edition of 688 bottles that was produced in 2007 and nominated as “spirit of the year” at the Bar Convent in the same year.
This gin has only a faint sweetness on the nose, and a fair amount of juniper. In the mouth you are hit with a fairly intense juniper flavour, as well as a mild burn, which subsides in to a long juniper led finish, along with a mild fruitiness and a faint cardamom note. A slight sweetness becomes apparent after the initial juniper hit, though this is by far the driest of all the gins tasted here. Very heavily juniper led, this almost reminded me of Tanqueray in that respect.
Secret Treasures “Old Tom Style” Gin is available via Drinkology. The site is currently only available in German, but an English version is forthcoming and rates for international shipping can be found by contacting them.
The Dorchester 2007 Old Tom Gin
The Dorchester Old Tom Gin is produced exclusively for The Dorchester Hotel in London by William Grant, the Scottish distillery that produces Hendrick’s gin. It is based on an original eighteenth century recipe uncovered by the hotel.
The Dorchester’s gin has a mild juniper nose with a slight floral note. The initial taste is a sweet mixture of juniper and fruit, with a strong floral element developing afterwards. The finish has a fairly strong violet note, along with lavender and other floral elements, spice, plus a mild lingering sweetness. It is a definite departure from the previous two gins, with fruit and floral flavours far stronger than I have tasted in any other gin. Smooth yet interesting, this is a really tasty gin.
The Dorchester 2007 Old Tom Gin is available exclusively from The Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane, London.
Both’s Old Tom Gin
Another product in the “Secret Treasures” line from Germany company Haromex, Both’s Old Tom Gin comes in a bottle clearly designed to mimic the design of the classic Booth’s Old Tom. The label is made out of a felt like material, complete with reflective gold detailing which looks very nice and definitely makes the bottle stand out. I was unable to find much information about this bottling, but the much higher alcohol content of 47% certainly sets this gin apart from the others which all stick to 40%.
Both’s has a fairly subdued nose, with a slight sweetness and mild floral notes. In the mouth you get a strong fruity sweetness followed by an intense mixture of floral notes. Strong violet and lavender is noticeable, plus a candy-like sweetness and a mild juniper background. The fruit and floral notes linger in the sweet finish, and despite it being a hefty 47% ABV the gin remains relatively smooth with just a mild burn on the finish. Even more floral and intense than The Dorchester’s Old Tom, this gin is certainly very different to a traditional London Dry. With such powerful and interesting flavours, I’m very excited to see what this does in cocktails.
Both’s Old Tom Gin is available via Drinkology. The site is currently only available in German, but an English version is forthcoming and rates for international shipping can be found by contacting them.
It is clear that the four gins tested here divide in to two main camps – botanically-led gins that are sweeter but maintain many London Dry characteristics, and more floral, fruity gins that take a reasonable departure from what is considered normal in the gin world today. As I said before, I’ve not actually tasted traditional Old Tom myself, but from what I understand from people that have, classic Old Toms were very floral, fruity and relatively sweet. In that respect, it seems the gins from Both’s and The Dorchester are the most accurate recreations of Old Tom, though the other two are by no means bad gins.
Of course this argument is largely academic, as if we wanted to be really accurate to eighteenth century drinking we’d be consuming badly made spirits full of dangerous substances, and it’s perfectly possible that both these styles of Old Tom existed in the past – we haven’t exactly got much to go on except the few old bottles of a few specific products that still survive.
What really matters is what works best in a drink, so I have also tried these gins in several classic cocktails that traditionally called for Old Tom, as well as the Old Tom alternative David Wondrich suggests in Imbibe! – a London Dry sweetened with a small amount of gomme syrup. Click here to see whether Old Tom makes the better drink, or whether you can make do with your existing gins and a bit of extra sugar.
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