When we think about summertime cocktails, tiki drinks are some of the first that come to mind. Many require multiple bottles of spirits, and various juices and liqueurs, and they can be somewhat more time-consuming to layer and build. That goes against the entire philosophy of spending a lazy evening on the porch, or wiling away an afternoon at a barbecue, especially if you’ve put a lot of time into the food. For our money, and our overwhelming dedication to the good old-fashioned American value of relaxation, it’s the Tom Collins that we want in hand during the warm months. An early published recipe for the cocktail dates to the foundational 1876 “The Bartender’s Guide,” by Jerry Thomas. Almost 150 years of history can’t be wrong.
As with many cocktails with such a lengthy history, there’s often debate about the exact origin of a recipe and its name. Whether it was from a 19th-century London waiter named John Collins known for his gin punch, then altered when Old Tom gin started being used more regularly, or from a popular bar hoax at the time, depends on which boozy historian you read.
The simplicity of the Collins, which is a style of cocktail, as opposed to a strict recipe, is definitely the appeal, agrees Daren Swisher of jm Curley. Also its versatility. You can use almost any type of spirit you have on hand with the basic framework. Most recipes today call for Old Tom Gin, mid-range on the spectrum of dryness, gin-wise, (Hayman’s is a good choice) although Thomas used a Holland-style gin, which you can find today in Bols Genever, for a sweet, but muskier base. Variations on the theme allow for tequila, vodka, applejack, rye, pisco, and others you think of (maybe not Zwack or Fernet).
“Depending on the quality of the gin, you can ratchet up the amount of modifier, or if you really like the gin and you want that to shine through, you can dial back the sugar or lemon. If it’s not the best gin in world, dial up the lemon and sugar more, and it’s still a really palatable and refreshing drink,” says Swisher. For our personal taste we like a drier, spirit-forward profile.
Potential modifications can work in the other direction as well, if you’ve got the ingredients. At jm Curley you might be served a Collins-style cocktail, which sticks with the gin, lemon, and soda, but varies sweeteners and garnishes. Recent options have used local honey and a pinch of smoked sea salt garnished with bruised rosemary sprigs, or rhubarb syrup and a spritz of rose water.