College is generally a dark time for cocktails. I remember a summer back in 1994 when all I ordered at my local watering hole's Dollar Drink Night was my newly discovered favorite: the Vodka Collins. The surly bartenders we descended upon in droves would throw a slug of the cheapest liquor available into a glass, drown it with Squirt and mash a lime and maraschino cherry on top before accepting a couple of crumpled singles.
Flashing forward 10 years, the Collins was again my summer drink of choice. Fortunately, this time around I had learned how to build a proper Collins in the spirit of the drink's origin. I had replaced the vodka with gin and the Squirt with freshly squeezed lemon juice, sugar and chilled sparkling mineral water.
The sparkling water is key. After all, the Collins is essentially a Gin Sour lengthened with soda water, or a Gin Fizz served on ice. Not surprisingly then, the drink dates back to when the first carbonated water hit London's bar scene in 1813, in the form of a portable soda cart created by a man named Charles Plinth.
No more than a year after the arrival of Plinth's soda cart, a waiter named John Collins created a punch at the bar in the Limmer's Hotel. His mixture of gin, lemon juice, sugar and the new soda water was exceedingly popular, and soon, it became requested at bars all over the city.
By 1876 a single-serving version of the punch had been published in Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide—although its name had changed slightly, from John Collins to Tom Collins. The drink, now one of the most iconic highballs in cocktail history, has an inherent refreshing quality that made it an oft-requested quencher, as well as an easy target for the army of pre-made mixers that assaulted bars and palates in the 1950s and 1960s.
The trick to making a solid Collins is avoiding the pitfall of nightclubs and dive bars all over the world: using grapefruit soda as a sort of Collins "mix." Instead, take the extra 30 seconds and make the cocktail the way John Collins did—i.e., with fresh ingredients. Anyone who tells you that there is a suitable substitute for the juice of an actual lemon is a liar and a scoundrel. I mean really, what evokes the perfect springtime backyard BBQ more: Fresh-squeezed lemon or carbonated corn syrup?
2 oz. London Dry or Old Tom gin (try seeking out Hayman's if going the Old Tom route)
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. 2:1 simple syrup, made by slowly heating two parts sugar to one part water in a small saucepan on the stove, until the sugar is dissolved
2 oz. chilled club soda
Combine all ingredients but soda in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until ingredients are combined and chilled. Add soda water to shaker. Pour over fresh ice in a tall glass and garnish with a lemon peel.
Photo by David L. Reamer