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The John Collins

 

John Collins

John Collins

 

John Collins

2 oz Genever
1 oz Lemon Juice
1 tsp Powdered Sugar (+/- to taste)
3 oz Club Soda (+/- to taste)

Stir genever, lemon juice, and sugar together in a Collins glass until sugar is dissolved.
Add 2-3 ice cubes and top with Club Soda.
Garnish with a lemon slice.

* * *

When I was in high school, my best friend was called Tim. He was Tim when we debated the merits of Roger Waters versus David Gilmore. He was Tim when he dated a girl called Lemming, a member of the local Rocky Horror troupe (she played Columbia). He was Tim for all the countless hours we whiled away at Tower Records and Double Rainbow on Watt Avenue in Sacramento. And, he was still Tim when I visited him at UC Santa Cruz, walking through the quads as someone shouted the lyrics to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” from their dorm room window. He was, and always would be, Tim to me. However, when we reconnected several years after college, he was no longer Tim; he was Thomas.

Should an Englishman of the 1870s have found himself out West in the nascent nation of the United States, he would have had a similar experience as he found his beloved John Collins suddenly and inexplicably called Tom. Today, we know Tom, if any Collins at all, but 150 years ago, John was the older brother. Like Chet on Happy Days, without our notice, John simply faded away. Fortunately for us, he’s back.

But to where — and, more importantly, how — did John disappear? According to David Wondrich, the John Collins rose to fame somewhere around the 1830s and was named for the gin punch served by one John Collins, waiter at Limmer’s Hotel in London. Collins was immortalized by Charles and Frank Sheridan in their verse:

My name is John Collins, head-waiter at Limmer’s,
The corner of Conduit Street, Hanover Square;
My chief occupation is filling of brimmers,
To solace young gentlemen laden with care.

It goes on to mention Collins’ gin punch, and via his research, Wondrich discerns that Collins’ punch was pretty close to the Collins of today. It’s a clean and simple origin story. But that’s where brother Tom comes in and mucks it all up.

“Hey, did you hear? There’s a guy going around talking smack about you. I just saw him around the corner. If you leave right now, I’m sure you could catch him. His name is Tom Collins.” That, in short, was the gist of the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. It was a simple prank meant to get some sucker all riled up and racing through the streets. The height of hilarity or not, it was enough of a phenomenon at the the time — and was, apparently, responsible for enough bodily injury — to make the national papers. To commemorate the event, bartender extraordinaire Jerry Thomas added the Tom Collins, made simply with Gin, to the 1876 edition of his canonical cocktail book.

By the 1890s, both John and Tom were living happily together — the former made with Hollands, as is ours above, and the latter made with Old Tom or the upstart London Dry gin. Many suspect that, in fact, that the Tom Collins got its name from Old Tom gin. Or, maybe if you’re going to name a drink after a guy named Tom, you’re just inclined to reach for a bottle with “Tom” on the label. I think either is an easy stretch. In his American Bar-Tender (1891), Cocktail Boothby follows exactly this distinction — genever for a John, Old Tom for Tom. As do William Schmidt in The Flowing Bowl (1891) and, later, the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930).

As luck would have it, Dutch genever got pushed out of the market by changing tastes and the rise of London Dry. Since London Dry was the natural successor to Old Tom, it was an easy enough substitution to make in the Tom Collins, but brother John soon faded into obscurity. With Bols Genever on our list, I think it’s high time we revived the chap.

Both John and Tom are tall punches — that is, they contain all the makings of a punch (sour, sweet, strong, weak) in a tall glass filled with ice. Here at 12 Bottle Bar, they also mark our first highballs. Highballs are a class of drink defined by the addition of some fizzy liquid or other. The Gin and Tonic, the Rum and Coke — highballs. We’ll be exploring highballs time and again, and I think the Collins is a fine introduction to the family.

Of course, if you also have Leopold’s in your bar, no one will be offended if you whip up a batch or two of Tom Collins. As with all highballs, the prevailing wisdom is to add or subtract as much sugar or soda as suits your particular tastes. I find the Collins a thin drink, and I try to add only enough soda to do the job without drowning the other ingredients. I also find club soda superior to seltzer here. Make yours as you like.

As for my friend Tim, Thomas was and always had been his given name. Like the rest of us, as he matured, the nickname, taken from a childhood friend, fell away to be replaced by the real one. Personally, I can accept that much more easily than I can accept, say, “Rick” Schroder. Some names are better the way they were.

Esoterica:
If I had to walk into a bar and order a John Collins, I would hope to do so with William “Cocktail” Boothby at the helm. His generous John Collins recipe is of a kind unseen today:

Take the largest glass procurable and place a good size piece of ice in it. Set this in front of the customer with a bottle of Holland gin at his right hand so he can serve himself to the gin. Then take a large mixing-glass and put in it the juice of two lemons, a heaping tablespoon of bar sugar, and dissolve this in part of a bottle of plain soda; pour into the large glass of gin and ice, fill up the glass with the balance of the plain soda, stir and serve.

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