Tall, icy and classic, the Collins is a species of cocktail that will never go out of style. In the traditional canon there is Tom—the father of the Collinses—made with gin. Then there’s John, a brother made with whiskey. More self-explanatory are the vodka Collins and the rum Collins. And cascading from each of these is an entire family tree built from the same refreshing blueprint: spirit-citrus-sweetener-soda. With such a simple formula, there are so many possible variations that it’s difficult to keep up.
However, it’s always best to begin with with the original.
Like so many drinks, its origins are muddled. If you take the American side of the story, the Tom Collins evolved from the “The Great Tom Collins Hoax” of 1874, in which pranksters would tell a friend they had run into one “Tom Collins” at a bar around the corner who had said some slanderous things about said friend. Said friend would then leave to find “Tom Collins” at the bar around the corner, sparking a goose chase of, perhaps, not-so-epic proportions.
Or you can choose the British side, which (more likely) suggests that the Tom Collins was the creation of London bartender John Collins, who dreamed up an eponymous gin punch in the latter half of the 19th century, that, when made with Old Tom Gin, presumably became the Tom Collins. The first published recipe appears in Jerry Thomas’s 1876 The Bartender’s Guide. By either route (or perhaps a combination of the two), the Tom Collins is a spritzy drink made of lemon, sugar, soda water and gin—which combine to form, what is essentially, the original hard lemonade.
There are few ways to spoil such a basic drink, and so many ways in which to improve upon it. Ask any bartender for a riff on the Collins, and you’ll be certain to come away with at least a dozen variations. Brad Farran’s Bitter Tom adds grapefruit, Campari and pomegranate molasses to the mix to tart things up. His Mount Olympus Collins infuses gin with tea flowers and adds orgeat and apricot liqueur for an equally herbaceous and nutty complexity. The Florodora, a turn-of-the 19th-century classic, adds raspberries, swaps lemon juice for lime and switches plain soda water for ginger ale. Still others change out the traditional gin base for alternate spirits. The Sailor’s Sunset uses rum, Campari and ginger for a Caribbeanized Collins, while the Rome With a View skirts a strong base altogether opting for an Americano-cum-Collins mix of vermouth, Campari and lime.
Sometimes, the only way to keep up is to keep drinking.