The resurgence of interest in classic gin cocktails, and to meet the demands of bartenders, distillers are turning back the clock and bringing back Old Tom gin, once the only gin available.
What is Old Tom gin?
‘Old Tom’ is a generic term for sweetened gin, but at the beginning of the 19th Century all gin was sweet and referred to in this way. This was the era when gin was sold in, and served from, barrels and before the continuous still was patented in 1831. Poorly rectified (purified) base spirit meant that some unappealing flavours had to be masked by sweetening agents like liquorice or sweet fennel, and later sugar when it became a cheaper commodity.
Why is it called Old Tom?
There are so many stories about this one! One tale involves a cat falling into a barrel of gin, later immortalised in Boord’s Cat and Barrel trademark. Although the owner, Joseph Boord claimed that the Old Tom was the name of a distiller.
Another story involves a bootlegger named Captain Dudley Bradstreet, who, during the mid-1700s when the first clamp down on gin sales occurred, advertised gin using a sign of a cat in his window. Under the cat’s paw was a slot for money and a funnel from which the customer received their gin once they had paid. His idea began to be copied and soon ‘Old Tom’ became the street name for gin.
There is no definitive answer, but by the time branded bottles emerged, Old Tom Gins usually had an illustration of a cat, so the story of Captain Bradstreet seems the most likely.
How does it taste?
Firstly, It’s a very different proposition to London Dry! Secondly, distillers like to create their own interpretations of gins and Old Toms are no different. Some are aged, some are sweetened with sugar while others use botanicals to achieve the desired sweetness.
How do I drink it?
Many of the classic cocktails call for Old Tom gin to be used in their recipes. Try a Tom Collins or a predecessor of the martini, the Martinez. Some of the aged versions are delicious over ice. We tried the Tanqueray with tonic which was very subtle and the Ransom in a Negroni which gave an earthy depth to the drink. As with all things gin, experiment!
6 Old Tom gins to try
Tanqueray Old Tom gin
An original recipe book from the 1830’s was Master Distiller Tom Nichol’s inspiration for his Tanqueray Old Tom. Juniper, angelica root, coriander, and liquorice are distilled and then blended with some unaged wheat spirit (to mimic the base alcohol of the time) and some beet sugar for sweetness.
A good balance of juniper with liquorice and peppery notes. Very textural, almost chewy. Subtle sweetness
Available from Master of Malt*
Ransom Old Tom gin
Possibly the most historically accurate Old Tom Gin of the lot, which is unsurprising given that it was produced in collaboration with historian, author, and mixologist extraordinaire David Wondrich. Ransom Old Tom has a base of malted barley (which gives a slight malty taste) mixed with a corn spirit that has been infused with juniper berries, orange peel, lemon peel, coriander seed, cardamom pods, and angelica root. After this blend has been distilled it is then aged in 100% used French oak wine barrels for six to twelve months.
Malt on the nose, citrus and juniper on the palate with liquorice and oak rounding out the flavour. Really tasty.
Kangaroo Island Spirits Old Tom gin
The only Australian Old Tom aged gin (as far as I know). Made from a combination of their gins with a small amount of locally grown Lemon and Aniseed myrtles added. The gin is then slightly sweetened before aging in a small reconditioned french oak barrel.
Hints of KIS Wild Gin in this one. Earthy with bold Australian flavours, a subtle sweetness and spicy finish.
ABV: 41.3 %
Available from KISpirits
Jensen’s Old Tom gin
This Old Tom recipe is taken from a handwritten distiller’s notebook dating from the 1840s, spirit but and recreates a style of gin that was first shipped to America. It is an unsweetened Old Tom gin that relies on the use of classic gin botanicals to achieve the sweeter flavour profile.
Earth and root notes are easily discernible in combination with juniper. Very subtle sweetness and delicate mouthfeel. Beautifully done.
Greenhook Ginsmiths Old Tom gin (not pictured)
Overproof AND barrel-aged for one year in bourbon casks before being finished in Oloroso Sherry casks, this Old Tom gin packs a punch! Bold and fruity with hints of plum and lots of heat and spice.
Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
Hayman’s use a family recipe from 1870 to create their Old Tom gin, which interestingly is made with twice as much juniper they use to create their London Dry.
Juniper notes on the nose, carried through to the palate with a little citrus, plenty of sweetness. Delicate mouthfeel. On the sweeter end of the Old Tom scale.