In the 1960 movie “The Apartment,” there’s a scene where Jack Lemmon, who plays a heartbroken junior executive named C.C. Baxter, is drowning his sorrows in a Manhattan bar on Christmas Eve. He’s approached by another solo barfly named Margie who breaks the ice with the line, “If you buy me a drink, I’ll buy you some music.” Then, before she heads to the jukebox, she says to the bartender, “Rum Collins!”
Lemmon doesn’t blink. The bartender doesn’t blink. Nobody blinks.
That’s because the Rum Collins was once a popular and common order in the United States, nearly on par with its more famous sibling, the Tom Collins. It was featured on nearly every cocktail menu and in every cocktail book.
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Today, you’ll find it nowhere, even with a supposed rum revival going on. What happened? Why did it disappear?
“Because it’s not a very interesting drink!” says Wayne Curtis, cocktail expert and author of the book “And a Bottle of Rum.” “The Tom Collins faded also, and I think enjoyed a revival in part because of a cool name and a nice glass. But that wasn’t enough to revive the Rum Collins.”
It is, indeed, undeniable that the Rum Collins has not received much love from the mixological judges of the cocktail renaissance. And, without the help of those taste-making bartenders, there’s little hope of a forgotten tipple getting a new lease of life.
“If I had to speculate,” says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, an authority on all things rum and tiki-esque, “I’d say it just wasn’t sexy or complex enough for the cocktail renaissance crowd.” Berry himself admits he didn’t give the drink much thought until celebrity bartender Dale DeGroff ordered one for him in Berlin a decade ago. But, unlike Curtis, Berry himself is not on board for Rum Collins bashing. Though he admits to previously approaching the drink with prejudice, as “too one-note, and a lazy way to turn a simple gin drink into a simple rum drink,” he ended up liking the one DeGroff gave him in Berlin. “It’s quite refreshing, either with Jamaican rum or a good, aged Cuban/Puerto Rican.”
Once upon a time, there were a lot more people in the world like DeGroff and Berry. Though you didn’t see the Rum Collins much prior to Prohibition, following repeal it was everywhere. What happened in the 13 years between those two events to change things? Cuba. Thirsty Americans, fleeing their country for a good whistle-whetting, alighted in nearby Havana and high-tailed it to Sloppy Joe’s, the most famous watering hole on the island nation. Sloppy Joe’s specialized in rum drinks.
“Sloppy Joe’s influence can’t be exaggerated,” says Brother Cleve, one of the godfathers of the cocktail revival and an owner of Lullaby bar in Manhattan. “All the Americans went there. I believe many American discovered rum in Cuba during Prohibition and brought that thirst back with them.”
Sloppy Joe’s published a cocktail pamphlet throughout the 1930s as a customer giveaway. Cleve points out that the Rum Collins is the second cocktail listed in the 1931-32 version of the book, right under Mojito. It remained prominently ranked in the 1939 edition of the booklet.
When Americans returned to American bars in 1934, when booze was once again legal, the rum companies followed. Liquor importers started to advertise the Rum Collins as a tastier, more flavorful alternative to the drab Tom Collins. A 1936 ad for Platten Brothers, a liquor store in Green Bay, Wis., declared: “Rum Collins is sweeping the Country. Easy to make—easy to drink—Rum Collins is justly the most popular tall drink in cities today. Every tavern keep should be prepared to supply it.” Sure, the brothers Platten were probably just trying to unload some cases of rum, but there seems to have been some truth behind the craze.
In 1964, Pott Rum went as far as to make the Rum Collins the centerpiece of its ad campaign. “Rum Collins is a revelation when made with Pott Rum” the copy crowed. Carioca Rum, Don Q, Ronrico, and the Rums of Puerto Rico organization had similar messages. In fact, most every rum brand of the era seems to mention the Rum Collins in their advertising of the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s — far more than drinks like the Daiquiri or El Presidente, which are much more familiar today.
Hollywood took note. “The Apartment” wasn’t the only movie where characters enjoyed a Rum Collins. Beginning in the 1940s, the cocktail made cameo appearances in multiple films, including “Murder Over New York” (1940), “Scarlet Street” (1945), “Mildred Pierce” (1945), and “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” (1948). Even James Bond drank one in “Thunderball.” After that, however, you didn’t see the drink on-screen until Christopher Lloyd ordered one in 1989’s “The Dream Team.” And Lloyd was playing an escaped lunatic.
Part of the reason the Rum Collins plummeted, as Curtis points out, is because the entire Collins genre came to be viewed as lackluster. The Tom Collins isn’t particularly loved today by either drinker or bartender; it is viewed by many as a rather dull, lightweight drink. But the Rum Collins — with its lime juice, simple syrup, soda water, and lemon wedge — may have also suffered from stiff competition, done in by two tastier rum highballs: the Rum and Coke, and the Mojito.
The Rum and Coke zoomed in popularity after the Andrews Sisters sang about it in a 1945 hit song. That beverage was even easier to make than the Rum Collins. Decades later, in the 1990s, the Mojito swept the United States. Now, the Mojito is not easier to make than the Rum Collins; all that mint muddling is a nuisance. But how are you going to get drinkers to go back to the simple Rum Collins once they’ve had a fragrant, minty Mojito?
And that’s probably how things will remain. As Brother Cleve puts it: “At the end of the day, the Rum Collins is a pleasant drink and should be a refreshing summertime favorite. But the general perception of rum drinks as starting and ending with the more tropical Daiquiri and Mojito will probably continue on.”
Matters could conceivably change for the humble, one-time hero Rum Collins. But before that, minds have to change.
“Hardly anyone orders them from me,” says Brian Miller, a celebrated NYC-based bartender well known for his love and knowledge of rum. “My brother Kevin is the only person I know of that actually orders a Rum Collins and he thinks I make a pretty mean one. But as a bartender, I don’t think to offer a Rum Collins as much as I should. So perhaps I am the problem.”
Brian Miller’s Rum Collins Recipe
- 2 ounces rum (something delicious & full of character)
- 1 ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce cane syrup
- Club soda
- Garnish: orange wheel, cherry
Directions: Combine rum, lemon juice, and cane syrup in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with 1 ounce of club soda. Garnish with a half orange wheel and a cherry.