Tom gin, or old tom gin, was once the common type of gin used in the English-speaking world. Its ancestors are wacholderbeerengeist and genever. Walcholderbeerengeist (juniper berry spirit) is better known as ‘Steinhäger’ (from Steinhagen, Germany) or just ‘German gin.’ It was reportedly distilled as far back as the twelfth century – making the oldest ancestor of gin. It is different from modern gins by being distilled from only macerated juniper berries.
Steinhagen is in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which borders the Netherlands. In the sixteenth century, genever began to be distilled in the Netherlands. Unlike wacholderbeerengeist or Steinhäger, genever is typically distilled from macerated juniper berries and other botanical ingredients. Inspired by genever, English gins began being distilled in the eighteenth century. Then, about a hundred years ago, the success of English gins caused a new type of genever to be made in the Netherlands – jonge genever. Jonge genever is the new-styled gin from the Netherlands and is basically the same in type as London dry gin. For the original type of genever, always be sure to select oude genever – the old-fashioned type.
English gin from London was originally slightly sweetened to cover the less-than-ideal quality of the water used in it. This slightly sweet type of gin also was famously sold using the image of a tom cat. Some say that a wooden tom cat from which tom gin was dispensed was the world’s first street-level vending-apparatus. Once technological advances led to relatively good, pure water being widely available, gin could be manufactured in London without needing any added sweetness. This became known as ‘London dry gin.’ To distinctly mark the older, sweetened type of gin from London, the tom cat associated with its vending became part of its name – tom gin, or old tom gin.
As can be seen from the image at the top of this post, the labeling tradition for tom gin includes the graphic depiction of a tom cat. The fact that this type of gin is named for a tom cat and not a man named ‘Tom’ is why the ‘t’ in ‘tom gin’ need not be capitalized (unless it stands at the beginning of a sentence).
The two most famous mixed drinks based on tom gin are the Martini Cocktail and the Tom Collins.
Note that the above drink is not what many consider the ‘classic Martini.’ They simply do not know that changing any of the ingredients (including the garniture) from the above original Martini Cocktail yields a drink that had its own unique name published in the pre-prohibition era. For example, changing the tom gin for dry gin, but leaving everything else the same, yields the pre-prohibition drink published as the Lone Tree Cocktail. Changing the garniture of the Lone Tree Cocktail from lemon zest to a pickled green olive creates the pre-prohibition drink published as the Down Cocktail. Changing the vermouth wine in the Down Cocktail from sweet to dry creates the pre-prohibition drink published as the Good Times Cocktail. Omitting the orange bitters from the Good Times Cocktail yields the drink first published in 1908 as the Gibson (yes, with an olive). There was also the Dewey Cocktail of 1903, which would be a Lone Tree Cocktail with dry vermouth wine instead of sweet vermouth wine (or it could be thought of as a Good Times Cocktail with lemon zest instead of the pickled green olive). In this light, it is humorous to hear so-called ‘Martini purists’ call all of these drinks ‘Martinis.’
The richness of unique names for similar-but-specially-different drinks was ended by prohibition, when masses of amateurish drinkers (and not the type of people who had much gone to saloons or bars before) were attracted to the hip, illicit nature of the speakeasy – where they were served drinks by another mass of amateurish bar-tenders. No matter how much modern bartenders may join in the fad of denigrating prohibition, if they over-use the words ‘cocktail’ and ‘Martini,’ they are expressing themselves in a way that is a direct product of it. Set all of that aside and make the original Martini Cocktail and drink it. You will discover what caused the name ‘Martini’ to become so popular and misappropriated.
A little bit of scholarship on the subject suggests that bar-tender John Collins was the first to famously proportion the recipe for a full-sized charged punch – the Limmer Hotel Punch – into single-portion preparations when the punch bowl ran dry. The Limmer Hotel Punch was a charged punch based on genever. When made by individual portions, the name of the bar-tender doing so stuck to the drink – the John Collins. This seemingly occurred in the early part of the 1800’s and the success of the drink meant that new bases would soon be used in it. The variant based on tom gin became the famous Tom Collins. When one orders a Tom Collins in most bars today, the drink will tend to be based on the dry type of London-style gin. But make yourself one with tom gin and bask in the the joy of historical-correctness and good-drinking meeting in one, tall glass tumbler.