It might seem like a small tweak: London dry gin out, Old Tom in. But, according to Jim Kearns, “it was a revelation.”
Swapping the slightly sweeter Old Tom gin into the Alaska, a Martini-style drink with a splash of yellow Chartreuse in lieu of vermouth, resulted in a cocktail that was “completely different” and “even more delicious,” says Kearns, a veteran New York bartender.
In researching the drink’s origins, he discovered that the original recipe, as published in Drinks, a 1914 book by Jacques Straub, featured Old Tom gin, a rounder style common in the 19th century, along with an unexpected addition of orange bitters, which are omitted in the popular version that appears in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in the 1930s. “I’d been making it with Plymouth gin for years at that point, because that was how I learned it,” says Kearns. But once he tried the recipe with Hayman’s Old Tom, “I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s a game changer.’”
It was this version that he placed on the menu at Slowly Shirley, the subterranean bar he co-opened below Happiest Hour in the West Village, in 2015. (He is no longer affiliated.) “It seemed like a shoo-in: a boozy, more herbaceous, sweeter version of the classic Martini,” recalls Kearns.
Compared to the drier 1930s version, “Old Tom made it more of a nice, mellow, rounder, easier drink,” Kearns notes. “It just integrated all of the elements really well, and played up the yellow Chartreuse.”
In a departure from both the Straub and Craddock versions, Kearns tweaks the ratio of his Alaska to what he calls “a cross-adaptation” of the two, with 2 1/4 ounces gin (which he readily admits is a “funky measurement,”) that subdues the ¾-ounce pour of liqueur. “I wouldn’t want that much yellow Chartreuse to something as gentle as Old Tom,” he explains. “It would throw the drink out of whack and you’d end up with something a little too sweet.”
To keep the mixture from becoming cloying, he also adds a dash of Bitter Truth orange bitters, a versatile option he finds reminiscent of the popular Fee Brothers–Regans’ mash-up known as “Feegans,” and a lemon twist garnish. “It adds the citric element, and dries it up as much as necessary,” says Kearns. The lemon twist, however, wasn’t part of the Straub original. “It evolved from being an Old Tom to a dry gin cocktail between 1914 and 1934—the lemon twist came around with the dry gin,” explains Kearns, who opts to retain the lemon garnish for a refreshing burst of citrus.
As Kearns recalls, it’s a rare example of a drink that clicked right away. Although he’s experimented with other gin brands as the base, he ultimately returned to Hayman’s, which in 2007 became the first Old Tom gin to hit the market after the style had been discontinued since the mid-20th century. “It works best. It doesn’t have any real forceful, specialized qualities to it,” explains Kearns. “It was just a nice, all-around, easygoing participant in the recipe.”
As new gin bottlings proliferate at meteoric rates, however, Kearns doesn’t anticipate veering from his tried-and-true formula. “I don’t know if that’s a drink I’d mess with as a whole,” he says. “It all works together extraordinarily well.”