Drinks in the 1800's were pretty simple. Mainly because the ingredients available were very limited. There was no commercial juices, no bottled sour mix (thank goodness) and a slim variety of liquors to choose from. Vodka and tequila, while popular in their native country. we unheard of in the United States. Bartenders would find a good combination of flavors, then work that combination into the ground. As we have seen in Grog and the Daiquiri, citrus, water, and sugar make a delightful combination. How can one improve that? Why, by adding charged water! Or, as it is better known today, soda water.
The history of the drink is as clouded as the cocktail itself. There was a rumor that a gentleman named John Collins came up with the recipe in England in the mid 19th century. This is not even close to true, but it makes for a good origin story. Since the British Empire covered the world at that time, it is no surprise that the drink ended up in Canada. It then filtered into the United States, and into the hands of bartenders there. We do know that sparkling water and ice were both much more abundant in America at the time then other places in the world. There was also an odd joke at the time that plays into the naming of the cocktail. The joke involved going up to the unsuspecting victim and asking them if they heard of Tom Collins. When they said no, the prankster then went on to try and convince them Mr. Collins was near, and he was saying horrible things about the person. They would run off to another bar, looking for Tom Collins, and the joke would continue. That is apparently what you do when there is no television. Somehow the name overlapped the cocktail, and the legend was born.
The drink is essentially gin with sparkling lemonade. It has no choice but to be delicious. Originally John Collins and Tom Collins were both popular. John was make with genever, a maltier, sweeter version of gin made in Holland. Tom was made with Old Tom gin, a middle ground between the sweetness of genever and juniperiness (not a word) of London Dry gin. As London Dry took over the market, John disappeared and Tom rose to the top. A Collins eventually became any spirit mixed with sugar, lemons, and soda water in a tall glass.
2 oz./ 60 mL gin (Ransom Old Tom is what I used to strive for authenticity)
1 oz./ 30 mL lemon juice
.75 oz./ 23 mL simple syrup
Glass: Collins (12 - 14 oz./360 - 420 mL)
Garnish: Varies, but a lemon peel and a cherry is most common
Pour all ingredients but the club soda into a mixing tin. Shake well, the pour into the Collins glass over ice. Top off the glass with the soda water, then garnish with the citrus peel and cherry.
When reading Gary Reagan's recipe, he suggests muddling the lemons with sugar to get the most out of the zest as well as the juice. It works. It is a very lemony drink at that point. More sugar, but not much more, would have helped. Incredibly refreshing.