When Life Gives You Lemons...Make a Tom Collins

Photo by @jaypaulphoto

Originally published in Richmond Magazine

The Tom Collins is about as classic as cocktails get, going at least as far back as Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide 1876.

Essentially sparkling lemonade with gin, it’s the perfect way to brighten a summer afternoon. Find your own balance by starting with equal parts lemon juice and simple syrup, adding one or the other in increments until it tastes like something you want to drink. Then shake or build in a tall collins glass and top with soda.

Katey Damian of Rappahannock says, “The most important part about making cocktails at home is using fresh-squeezed citrus.”

As far as gin, Jerry Thomas probably used Bols Genever, a malty and less junipery Dutch precursor that was more common at the time than London dry. The cocktail’s next popularity phase would call for Ransom Old Tom gin, a sweeter version aged in barrels—developed around Prohibition when women started drinking more and wanted something smoother. Nowadays most bartenders use London Dry style—because that’s what’s available and familiar.

At Fuzzy Cactus, Paul Kirk uses Gordon’s—though if he wants something sweeter he reaches for Barr Hill, a satin-smooth, honey-based gin.

Classic Tom Collins Substitutions

  • Lime for lemon = Gin Rickey

  • No soda = Sour

  • More soda = Fizz

  • Champagne, no ice = French 75

  • Ginger beer = Buck

Shannon Hood, bar manager of Brenner Pass, takes variation one step further with her Tom Collins/Margarita mashup called Mar-Gins, which she builds in the glass—never shakes. “Shaking it just over dilutes the drink, every time,” she says.

Should you shake a Tom Collins?

Since the cocktail rennaissance, craft bartenders have debated whether or not to shake a Tom Collins before adding soda.

Jerry Thomas’ original was built—but palates ran much drier back then. And some bartenders can’t get behind the idea of serving citrus without shaking—because unaerated lemon juice can taste oily and flat.

On the other hand, an overshaken Tom Collins is horrible and heartbreaking. Shaking with ice always risks over-dilution when lengthening with soda. Especially using home-made ice with lots of surface area.

Frankly an unbiased Shake-A-Collins poll would probably tally results at 50/50. The only way to really know for sure is a side-by-side comparison. So experiment responsibly and tell us what you find out in the comments.

Otherwise here’s my compromise: shake the ingredients dry without ice...then pour over ice in a collins glass and top with soda.

How to make a Tom Collins (recipes)

As a bartender I’m a freak. I make my Tom Collins in the original homemade manner:

  • In a shaker, muddle 2-3 sugar cubes (~1 Tbsp granulated) with 3 lemon quarters.

  • Add 2-3 oz Ransom Old Tom gin.

  • Add a glassful of ice and shake 3-4 times to agitate but not dilute.

  • Pour into a collins glass and top with high-fizz soda (I use Sodastream)

  • Garnish with the 4th lemon quarter to squeeze in if the ice dilutes.

But most bartenders aren’t that crazy.

Tom Collins – Katey Damian, Rappahannock

1.5 oz The Botanist Islay gin

1 oz lemon juice

.25 oz rich simple syrup (2:1 sugar and water)

  • Shake and strain over fresh ice in a collins glass.

  • Top with Q soda

Next level: Top with a flavored LaCroix to add some flavor.

Tom Collins – Paul Kirk, Fuzzy Cactus

1.5 oz Gordon’s gin

.75 oz lemon juice

.75 oz turbinado syrup (1:1)

  • Shake hard, 8-12 seconds, and strain into a collins glass.

  • Add fresh ice and top with high-carbonation soda.

  • Garnish with a cherry and orange twist.

Next level: Add an eggwhite for silky mouthfeel

Mar-Gins – Shannon Hood, Brenner Pass

2 oz london dry gin

1 oz rosemary-infused Cointreau

.75 oz lime juice

Sprig rosemary

  • Build over 1” cubes in a collins glass and stir briefly to incorporate.

  • Top with soda.

  • Garnish with rosemary.

Next level: Shannon suggests freezing rosemary into the ice for an eye-catching, “super easy way to dress up your home bar game.”

What are your Tom Collins preferences?