Like so many drinks, the origins of the Collins 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 bad-mouthed said friend. When the friend would leave to find “Tom Collins,” the trick sparked a wild-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. Featured in Harry Johnson's 1882 bartender's manual, the classic is a bubbly drink made of lemon, sugar, soda water and gin.
Ask any bartender today for a riff on the Collins, and you’ll be certain to come away with at least a dozen variations. Bartenders have brought the centuries-old drink into the modern day by putting an aperitif-like spin on the drink, swapping the gin for other base spirits and amping up the citrus flavor with cordials or other juices, like grapefruit. Still, despite so many layered takes on the drink, some argue that its simplest form may already be the best: “In its original gin—specifically Old Tom—capacity, it’s just transcendent,” says Maison Premiere’s William Elliott.