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Behind the Drink: The Tom Collins

I often wonder which one of today’s superstar mixologists will end up immortalized by a cocktail. Two hundred years from now, will people be drinking Audrey Saunderses or Jim Meehans, Dale DeGroffs or Tony Abou-Ganims or—well, you get the idea. But if history is a guide, it’s not something that one can easily predict. Mixological immortality might skip this talented generation entirely, or settle its mantle on some bit player; a follower, rather than a leader.

That’s happened before. Take John Collins, the headwaiter of London’s Limmer’s Hotel in the 1820s and 1830s. A pleasant chap, plump and nimble with a sparkle in his eye, he was nonetheless no great innovator when it came to the art of mixing drinks. He made excellent punches, to be sure, but so did a lot of people. And while, yes, his eponymous gin punch—a cooling mix of English gin, lemon juice, a touch of sweetener and a healthy pour of iced soda water—was famous, as far as we can tell two centuries later, he didn’t actually invent it. That honor goes to Stephen Price, an American who ran the Garrick Club, also in London. But Price was foul-mouthed and bossy, and Collins had that damned twinkle. Moral of the story: don’t underestimate the twinkle.

In any case, Collins’ immortality went sideways later in the century. American tipplers developed a preference for “John Collinses” made with the newly-popular English old tom gin, which is essentially a brawnier and sweeter London dry gin. (The recipe had originally called for the whiskey-like Dutch-style gin.) Drinkers were soon calling for Tom Collinses, and didn’t really stop doing so until air conditioning became standard. Before that, your best option for summer cooling was to ask for Mr. Collins, whatever his first name might have been.

Traditional Tom Collins

Contributed by David Wondrich



Add all the ingredients to a large, tall glass full of ice. Stir and top off with chilled soda water and garnish with a lime wedge.

Looking for a modern Tom Collins recipe? Try this one from’s cocktail library.

David Wondrich is the author of the award-winning book Imbibe! and Esquire magazine’s Drinks Correspondent. He is also a advisor.