Old Tom Gin: Cocktails' "Missing Link"

The “missing link” of the gin evolution has to be the ‘Old Tom’ category. With the re-introduction of Hayman’s and Ransom gins a few years ago, the link has finally been found along with the tale of Old Tom. The story of gin begins in Holland where the Dutch, who were excellent traders and distillers, started to infuse some of the wonderful botanicals that they would find around the world in to their malt-wines. These malt-wines were an expertly distilled blend of grains such as wheat, barley and rye, essentially a non-aged whiskey. This Holland Gin, or Genever, had a rich grain forward nose, subtle flavors of citrus and juniper, and a round full texture. In 1688 the English found themselves in need of a Protestant king and invited William of Orange to come over from Holland to take up the throne to become William III. When he arrived he found the English greatly enjoyed drinking the wines and brandies from France, the same people who they were constantly fighting with in various wars across Europe. William thought it a bit silly to support the economy of the enemy, so he proposed the English stop importing Bordeaux and Cognac. Well, no one was going to give up drinking, especially if your life was full of constant wars, plagues, and famines. So William had the English start producing a bit of “Dutch Courage.” The consumption of this English-made spirit. The problem was, the English had no real history of reliable distillation and certainly no experience with gin production. Their version of Genever was a bit rough around the edges and so required a good amount of sweetening to help make it palatable. Legend has it that gin vendors marked their locations with a black cat, a Tom Cat, which was affixed the wall of a building. Imbibers would slide coin through a slot by the cat’s paw, and on the other side of the wall the gin would be poured through a funnel in order to pour out of the cat’s mouth. And so English Genever - or Gin - became known as ‘Old Tom’.

This crudely distilled and sweetened drink took off surprisingly well, in fact a bit too well, to the point where drinking gin became an epidemic with the streets of London were literally filled with incapacitated alcoholics. Parliament had to pass a series of acts in the first half of the 18th century to try to control this “Gin Craze.”

At the beginning of the second half of the 18th Century, things began to settle down with over-consumption and eventually, over time, producers did develop well made Old Tom. As there were literally hundreds of producers making Old Tom in London so many different recipes developed, and today gin producers have revived several of those recipes. There were no laws that truly defined Old Tom and there still remains some confusion as to what an Old Tom gin is. In general, we now recognize it as a gin with a softer botanical set that is “rounder” in texture due to the addition of a small amount of sweetener. It can also be aged.

As for English Distillers, well they imported something else to help their gin production, The Coffey still invented by Irishman Aeneas Coffey. This allowed for the production of a “cleaner” neutral spirit into which botanicals could be infused. This new non-sweetened, or "Dry" style of London gin, became a hit. Yet Old Tom had already been written into the history books – or rather American Cocktail Books of the 19th Century – and as the present cocktail revival took off, craft bartenders started to seek out this “missing link.” Here are three great and very different Old Toms.

Hayman’s, London With Hayman’s Old Tom Gin you’ll enjoy a rich, rounded profile and a beautifully delicate finish. Hints of citrus and juniper piney notes provide a delicious, smooth taste. And the subtle sweetness keeps it true to the original style of English Victorian gin. www.haymansgin.com

Ransom, Oregon

The recipe was developed in collaboration with historian, author, and mixologist extraordinaire David Wondrich. Its subtle maltiness is the result of using a base wort of malted barley, combined with an infusion of botanicals in high proof corn spirits. The final distillation is run through an alambic pot still in order to preserve the maximum amount of aromatics, flavor and body.


Jensen’s, London

Unique among Old Tom gins, Jensen’s Old Tom Gin is “sweetened” with a higher concentration ofsweet botanicals such as licorice rather than having added sugar. This comes as a result of Jensen’s research into the truly oldest of Old Tom gins, which were sold with heightened botanical levels but no added sugar (sugar was added by the inn- or tavern-keeper). Replete with herbal and grassy notes, this gin has candy sugar on the nose but a dry, oily finish. www.bermondseygin.com

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