Do You Know Tom Collins: The Tom Collins Hoax of 1874


KIMBERLY VOSS PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. She blogs at womenspagehistory.com. She is the author of The Food Section (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and a co-author of Mad Men & Working Women (Peter Lang, 2014)

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With Memorial Day just behind us, it is the perfect time to pour a Tom Collins. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the official drink of summer, and various gin ads described the cocktail as the “king of cooling drinks.” The gin cocktail is typically made with lemon juice, soda water and sugar and is served over ice. Popular garnishes have included a maraschino cherry and a lemon or orange slice.

In a memorable scene of the AMC series “Mad Men” (Season two, Episode two), leading man Don Draper teaches his six-year-old daughter Sally to make a Tom Collins. She then mixes the cocktail for her parents and the guests who have arrived to play bridge. He instructs: “You don’t smash the cherry on that. Just plop it in at the end. Try to keep it in the top of the glass.”

Variations of the drink have been made with whiskey (usually described as a John Collins), rum, or vodka, and in the classic 1974 film “Chinatown,” with Faye Dunaway orders her Tom Collins with lime rather than lemon when she enjoys the cocktail.

The cocktail’s history goes back several more decades. A recipe for a John Collins was published in the 1869 edition of the Steward and Barkeepers Manual. A recipe for Tom Collins was first detailed in writing in 1876 by legendry mixologist Jerry Thomas, and it was described as the most popular drink of the time in the 1878 edition of The Modern Bartenders’ Guide by O.H. Byron.

The drink’s namesake first made newspaper headlines during what is known as The Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. The popular prank was based on a fictitious bar patron by the name of Tom Collins and would begin when a person would approach an acquaintance on the street and ask if he knew Tom Collins. That person would respond that he did not. The first person would explain to his friend that Collins was in a nearby bar spreading horrible rumors about the acquaintance, who would then rush off to the bar to find the gossip-spreading mystery man. Once there, others who where in on the joke would say that Collins had just left for another bar. And so the chase would ensue.

As the prank spread across the nation, newspapers were even reporting on the elusive rumormonger and songs were written about him. Legend has it that an enterprising bartender (or two), finally fed up with exasperated patrons rushing into his establishment demanding to find Tom Collins, concocted a drink of the same name. So, when a customer came in asking if the bartender had seen Tom Collins, that person was handed a drink. Today, the cocktail is usually served in a tall, narrow glass commonly referred to as a Collins glass. You can enjoy the summer cocktail with this simple recipe.

Recipe for a Tom Collins

  • 2 ounces of dry gin
  • 1 ounce lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (powered or superfine)
  • 3 ounces club soda
  • Maraschino cherry & lemon slice for garnish

1. Add gin, lemon juice and sugar to ice cubes in a cocktail shaker and shake. Strain into a Collins glass.

2. Add ice cubes and fill with the Club soda. Stir and add the garnish.

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