“I absolutely love a good Tom Collins, they’re simple, classic, and refreshing,” says Marisa Marzilli, beverage manager at Dram Yard in Wilmington, N.C. Comprised of gin, lemon juice, sweetener, and soda water, it’s an easy-drinking cocktail, the sort modern-day enthusiasts call a “porch pounder.”
Its roots are in 19th-century London. As legend has it, John Collins, a bartender at London’s Limmer’s Hotel, made a gin punch so popular it inspired a limerick and even made an appearance in a Victorian writer’s memoirs. When this punch was made with Old Tom gin, one version of the story goes, it was called a Tom Collins.
Origin stories like these are difficult to fact-check but make for good cocktail party chatter. Whether you’re mixing a batch for friends, or simply treating yourself, here are six expert tips for making an excellent Tom Collins at home.
What to Do When Making a Tom Collins
Your gin matters. (A lot.)
Most bartenders swear by Old Tom gin when making Tom Collinses — hence the name, Tom. Old Tom gins contain a small amount of beet sugar, making them fuller-bodied and less juniper-y than other styles.
“If you use a London Dry gin like Beefeater or Bombay, the drink will be too juniper-focused,” says Aneka Saxon, beverage director, Machine, Chicago. “Old Tom gin has a slight malty sweetness and is beautifully highlighted by fresh lemon juice.”
Your juice should be fresher than fresh.
You already know fresh-squeezed juices are always superior to the bottled or jarred stuff when you’re making cocktails. Zachary Pease, owner of NYC’s My Friend Duke, suggests squeezing your lemon juice immediately prior to making the drink for the best and brightest citrus notes. “Nothing makes the drink like the freshest possible lemon,” he says.
Treat your lemons right, too. “If individually squeezing lemons, be sure to remove the seeds and any bitter pith,” says Sophie Burton, beverage director, Politan Row Chicago. Burton sometimes tosses the husks of the lemons in her cocktail shaker, too, to blend in extra aromatics. This pro tip is best for folks who really love citrus.
Homemade simple syrup is best.
For some drinks, you could swap in agave nectar or even raw sugar for simple syrup and no one will be the wiser. This is not one of those cocktails. Make your own simple syrup (it’s easy!) for reliably refreshing results. Besides, “homemade simple syrup has a long shelf life and can be used in many other cocktail recipes,” says Sam Garcia, head bartender, Boleo’s, Chicago.
Mind your dilution.
“A common mistake people make is using room temperature soda water to top off their cocktail, thus losing the signature refreshing component,” Marco Ortiz, bartender, Tullibee at Hewing Hotel, Minneapolis, says. Since the drink is served on the rocks, lukewarm soda water speeds up dilution. “It’s best to always use cold soda water,” Ortiz says.
What to Avoid When Making a Tom Collins
Stick to the script.
Because there are so few ingredients here, it might be tempting to add berries, additional juices, or maybe your favorite liqueur. Resist that urge, bartenders say.
The Tom Collins “has endured because of its simplicity,” Pease says. “Fresh lemon, sugar, dry gin and some seltzer is perfect. Don’t mess with perfection.”
Don’t cut corners.
Maybe you only have fancy barrel-aged gin at home, or don’t feel like squeezing fresh lemons when there’s a jar of store-bought stuff in the fridge. Can’t you just freestyle it?
Not really. This drink is simple enough that every detail matters, Jeff Shull, beverage director at Baptiste and Bottle in Chicago, explains. “Just like anything in life,” he says, “you get out what you put in, a Tom Collins is no different.”