The Tom Collins is a beautiful cocktail for so many reasons. First, unlike other cocktails, you need very few ingredients to make it, all of which are easily attainable. If you run out of Angostura bitters, for example, you’re not making old fashioneds without a trek unless your corner bodega is a lot hipper than mine—but pretty much everyone can get their hands on lemons, sugar, and soda water no matter where they are. Second, and very much in keeping with the Mr. Potato Head school of bartending, you can swap out the spirit for pretty much anything, and end up with something delicious. Third, it’s very easy to make a crowd-friendly batch of Tom Collins, and keep the cocktails flowing seamlessly with fresh ice, chilled club soda, and not much work on your part beyond that.
Old Tom gin is used in this classic recipe that dates back to 1860. The Tom Collins first appeared in print in Jerry Thomas’ renowned mixology book “The Bartender’s Guide.” You may have also heard of the John Collins—which calls for the sweeter, less juniper-forward genever and was developed at the same London restaurant—but London dry gin is delicious in a Collins as well, as are rum, vodka, bourbon, rye, and tequila. That’s because a Collins is basically a sour served tall in a highball (also called a Collins glass, though a true Collins glass is taller and slimmer) and topped up with soda. The changes in the base spirit merely showcase the particular attributes of that spirit. Tiny variations in the recipe yield a staggering number of new cocktails, ensuring you’ll never become bored with this versatile formula.
A Collins made with lime is a rickey, or, made with lime and ginger ale instead of soda, it’s a buck (and both are fantastic spiked with a little fruit). Toss fresh mint, cucumber, or both into the shaker, or float Campari or any kind of bitters on top. The base recipe is so solid that the simplest flourishes are instant winners, which can’t necessarily be said of all cocktails.
Like many popular drinks, shortcuts are available at stores to help you get yours in its glass more quickly. Like most ready-to-use pre-made mixes, however, Collins mix is a sugary concoction of corn syrup, bottled citrus juice with citric acid added as a preservative, and whatever the manufacturer deems “natural flavors.” Run far away from this mix in particular, because the only tasks keeping you from making a tart, refreshing Tom Collins from scratch are squeezing fresh lemons and making simple syrup (both of which we happen to take great pleasure in doing).
Owing to its simplicity, a pared-down garnish of a lemon wheel and cocktail cherry keeps the focus on the citrusy gin. If you’re inspired to substitute the lemon wheel with an orange wheel, or drop a fresh cherry, raspberry, or strawberry in the drink, follow your instinct and make this classic cocktail your own.
- Serves 1
freshly squeezed lemon juice
sugar or 3/4 ounce simple syrup
chilled club soda, to top
- Add all ingredients except club soda to a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
- Shake briefly but vigorously, then strain into a Collins glass or highball filled with ice.
- Top with club soda, garnish with a lemon slice and cherry, and serve.