Liquor 101: Making our Own Old Tom Gin
Perhaps the most devastating review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came from a fictional character, and took only 10 words. As the Simpsons family exited the theater, as we all did, in 1999, Lisa’s comment was, ‘Who knew the Phantom Menace was an intergalactic trade war?’
I was reminded of Lisa Simpson and The Phantom Menace when I read cocktail historian David Wondrich’s groundbreaking article on the history of Old Tom Gin, which–predictably–he published mere days after I wrote a post including a brief, and now out-of-date, rundown of Old Tom.
Up until Wondrich wrote his article, Old Tom had a great little mythology. It goes like this. Old Tom is an older form of gin, the precursor to our modern London Dry style. It was sweeter, mellower, and involved a mysterious, slightly different set of botanicals. Eventually, as tastes changed and distilling processes improved, good Old Tom was replaced by modern London Dry.
The reality is a bit more prosaic than that. I’ll leave you to read Wondrich’s article for the details. As it turns out, Old Tom was the product of Britain’s excise tax code. There isn’t a lost bundle of botanicals. Old Tom didn’t really precede London Dry. And Old Tom was just the guy who was willing to give you a taste of his gin at the maximum legal limit of alcohol by volume, instead of something closer to the minimum.
What remains the same is that Old Tom was in fact the dominant form of gin consumed in much of the 19th century (when cocktails were discovered). The new and exciting information we have is that it’s absurdly easy to make your own: just a bit of sugar and water turns your bottle of modern London dry gin into an Old Tom that even Old Tom himself would have been proud of.
How to Make Your Own Old Tom Gin
- Heat 5 teaspoons of sugar and one tablespoon of water over low heat until the sugar dissolves.
- Let cool.
- Add to one 750 ml bottle of London dry gin. Make it either Tanqueray or Beefeater, which sell their gin at the 1819 maximum alcohol by volume, 47%.
- That’s it!
Wondrich goes on to suggest that, if you have a little barrel, you can let your Old Tom spend some time in there. We do; so we put our Old Tom in it for two weeks.
We bottled our cask-rested Old Tom this weekend, and did a side-by-side taste comparison of it, with homemade but un-rested Old Tom and with Hayman’s, a well-regarded commercial Old Tom. Here’s what we thought:
- Young and Homemade–we were surprised by just how much of a difference a fairly small amount of sugar and water can make. Our doctored gin had a very strong juniper presence, but was noticeably gentler than the unadulterated form. You can see why those 19th century Londoners wanted that bit of sugar added, particularly since they were drinking less refined gin;
- Hayman’s–Hayman’s was well-balanced, and quite a bit more gentle yet than our homemade variety. The juniper, in particular, was quite a bit more subtle. I don’t know if the difference between ours and Hayman’s had to do with a difference in alcohol content (Hayman’s is 40% abv, ours 47%), a different botanical mix, or just that Hayman’s has been doing this for 150 years and knows a thing or two. Most likely all three. Hayman’s specifically mentions being made from wheat, which could explain to some degree its softer edge. Unsurprisingly, since they are London gins from around the same time period, Hayman’s and Beefeater (our base) mention very similar botanical ingredients, but we could more clearly discern the influence of coriander, licorice, and nutmeg in Hayman’s gin than in our modified Beefeater;
- Homemade and Cask-rested–we were very pleased by how the cask-rested turned out. The time in the barrel made this gin wonderfully soft, with slight oaky notes, and maybe even a peppery hint picked up from the tequila that was last in the barrel. It was smooth, pleasant, and interesting. We’re sure you’re going to be hearing a lot more in the future about the cocktails we mix with it. Between our liter of home-modified Old Tom, Tomfoolery, and Hayman’s, we’re quite well-supplied with Old Tom right now.