Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Hayman's Old Tom Gin with How To Mix Drinks

Old Tom is a sweeter style of gin that's been resurrected over the last decade, initially it seems at the request of london's mixologists who wanted this historic style back so that they could recreate classic Jerry Thomas era cocktails.

The (abbreviated) story of Old Tom takes us right back to the 18th century gin craze. Distillation techniques were crude, and gin which wouldn't have been very good quality to begin with was commonly adulterated with turpentine (one way to get that juniper forward flavour, but not the one you want) and sulphuric acid. To make it something like palatable it was also common to add quite a lot of sugar. Over the years distillation and quality improved but the taste for sweet gin remained.

Why its called Old Tom is subject to speculation (it's worth reading what Gin Foundry have to say on the subject) but it's a style that seems to have remained popular through the golden age of cocktails, and up until the Second World War when an increasing preference for dryer drinks pushed it out of favour. By the 70's it had all but disappeared, and then Hayman's resurrected it (and good on them for doing so). These days there are a few around, but Hayman's, as well as being excellent, is the easiest to find (Waitrose sells it amongst others) .

It's a noticeably sweeter style than London gin, and whilst the usual citrus and juniper elements are there it's the sweetness provided by the sugar and liquorice that really come through. I'm sometimes asked for a sweet gin so I'm glad to have this to sell (Hayman's also do a gin liqueur which is worth investigating too, it has a lot more sugar and is great for playing around with cocktails) but I think it's fair to say that it doesn't really shine in a G&T - it's not bad, but I prefer something dryer.

Put it in a Tom Collins on the other hand and it's a different story. In a drink that's going to be sweetened anyway the softer, rounder, notes of Old Tom are perfect. Indeed, I'd use it for any gin cocktail that has any kind of sweetness to it, or where you feel a bit of sweetness might be wanted.

The book to have if you have a bottle of Old Tom to play with is 'How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant's Companion' by Jerry Thomas. Jerry Thomas was a New York icon and cocktail pioneer who toured America and Europe spreading the word about his creations with some impressive showmanship thrown in for good measure. 'How to Mix Drinks' is a seminal work, and whilst the instructions do seem to err on the side of brevity, and the quantities mentioned are often on an epic scale, it's an interesting book to browse through - especially if you want to know what people drank in the 1860's (I do, I really do). Hesperus reissued it a few years ago with charming illustrations - that's the copy I have - and it has plenty of useful suggestions for Old Tom...


  1. The only (moderate) gin drinker I know is my sister who lives in Charlton King's in Cheltenham, near Leckhampton Hill. My other (London) sister comes to Gloucestershire on occasional weekends, and they enjoy a gin or two in the garden before dinner. I'm in Cheltenham at the moment, so I shall be buying a bottle of Old Tom's Gin (which I had never heard of) as a present for my sister before leaving. Your tip about the perfect Tom Collins is a canny one, thanks. I think Desperate Reader should write a comic but compassionate novel centred around gin drinking in London between the late Victorian age and the 1920s. It could be a multi-generational riff on the family saga, with a faint citrus and juniper whiff of Nancy Mitford.(Read Death and Mr Pickwick to see what can be done in this form.) There could be an interesting dialectic between gin tipplers and the abstemious Evangelicals who belong to the Clapham Road Sect. Gin was dubbed Mother's Ruin, after all. As a drink it has never quite agreed with me. But I remember reading a John D. MacDonald thriller in which the private eye hero swears by Beefeater Gin, the brand many Americans used in their martinis. It might be worth while reading what Kingsley Amis says about gin in his little book on drink; the Old Devil once wrote a column on drink for the Daily Express. I hadn't heard of Jerry Thomas but I shall track him down. John O'Hara, a pal of Dorothy Parker, wrote some of the best 'drinking stories' that I know, as did F. Scott Fitzgerald. O'Hara's letters are worth reading, published by Random House, because he went cold sober in the last 18 years of his life, due to a perforated ulcer. Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammet's The Thin Man enjoy their gin martinis, if memory serves. I am almost abstemious myself these days, though I come from a town where folk drink like there's no tomorrow.
    Jack Haggerty, Glasgow.
    P.S. Look at a blog - Danielle Dutton founder of Dorothy a publishing project (Kirkus) for an eclectic cocktail that reminds me of Desperate Reader. Danielle recommends Amina Cain's essays, Something Has Brought Me Here, which I shall be ordering soon from my local bookshop. How about reviewing it in your blog?

  2. O'Hara is a tremendous writer, and I'll check out Danielle Dutton's blog. I hope your sistes enjoy the gin.