An intro to Old Tom Gin
Old Tom plays a significant role in the history of gin. Quaffed by the bucketload during the 18th and 19th centuries, it served as something of a bridge between Dutch Genever and London Dry, drier than the former and sweeter than the latter.
Old Tom Gin emerged in an era of heavy drinking and primitive distilling. The column still hadn’t yet been invented, so spirits were harsh at the best of times. Keen to increase profit margins, the unscrupulous distillers of this era would add to this by cutting their spirits with turpentine and sulphuric acid, creating gins that were barely palatable and often deadly. Still, the English are a determined bunch when it comes to drinking and they turned to gin in their droves. In order to make it drinkable, distillers sweetened the juniper-laced spirit with liquorice or sugar, thus creating a whole new category.
The Old Tom name has more origins than the entire Marvel universe put together. There are many, many stories claiming to reveal the etymology behind the spirit, each treading a line that falls somewhere between the logical and the ridiculous.
One commonly heard story points towards the biography of author Captain Dudley Bradstreet, who claims to have invented a one-stop gin shop – known by history as a Puss & Mew shop – that could help enterprising booze hounds get their fix following the Gin Act of 1736. In the window of a little building in London he hung a sign featuring an old tomcat. Beneath the cat’s paw there was a slot into which the city’s thirsty masses could drop a coin. Coin received, Bradstreet would pour a shot of gin through a lead pipe, directly into the patrons waiting mouth. That this happened – and spread like wildfire – is not in dispute, but that it led to the name Old Tom is highly unlikely – the timing is never that great, and Bradstreet makes no mention of the term in his autobiography.
A slightly less exciting explanation behind the name tells the tale of a tomcat falling into a vat of gin – o, happy death! While we don’t buy that one either, cats and Old Tom Gin have been intertwined throughout its history, with felines drawn onto many a bottle or barrel. One of the first to do this was Boord’s of London – possibly one of the best known and most widely distributed brands at the time. In 1849, Joseph Boord registered a Cat and Barrel trademark for his Old Tom – a decision that eventually saw him in court, opposing Huddart & Company’s decision to depict a puss on its barrel. (Incidentally, the court documents describe H&C’s branding to feature “the picture of a cat sitting on the snow, attired in the fancy garments usually associated with Puss in Boots, and pouring the last drops out of what appears to be an empty gin bottle.” A fancy cat – how lovely).
Cats aside, the story we swallow is that of a distiller called Thomas Chamberlain and his apprentice, Thomas Norris. Chamberlain worked at Hodge’s distillery, teaching Norris his ways. Sparing you a rather long essay on the intricacies of 1800’s distilling life and the flow of booze from fermentation to end drinker (sometimes via various acids) – it seems that it was likely that “old Tom” was the one after whom it was named. This can be seen when Norris (young Tom) completed his apprenticeship, he opened a gin palace in Great Russell Street, Covent Garden. The gin that he (and many others) were selling at that time was called Old Tom as emblazoned on the barrels and that was reputed to be a good quality spirit. Wherever the origin, it is clear that this style of Gin that was popularised in the Gin Palace era, and immortalized in George Cruikshank’s The Gin Shop illustration in 1829.
Old Tom dominated the gin scene for decades, but as technology improved – and with it distilling techniques – there became less of a requirement for sweetening agents and adding huge quantities of botanicals to cover the base alcohol. Tastes moved towards the drier style of gins we know and love today, with Old Tom falling out of favour by the 1940s and almost gone by 1970s. Before it tumbled silently into history, though, Old Tom made its way into a lot of classic cocktail recipes, including those written by Harry Johnson and Jerry Thomas. These books have been held close by bartenders for decades, but it wasn’t until the mid-noughties, when cocktail culture truly re-awoke, that the call for Old Tom to come back grew loud enough for gin brands to take notice.
The first to respond was Hayman’s. Chairman Christopher Hayman comes from a long distilling heritage, sharing lineage with Beefeater founder James Burrough. Working to a recipe tucked away in the family archives, Hayman began work on an Old Tom Gin, releasing the liquorice-rich, lightly spiced spirit in 2007.
Since then, a flurry of Old Tom Gins have been unleashed on the world, from Hernö in Sweden, to Makar in Glasgow to Master of Malt’s Bathtub Gin. Each demonstrates their own interpretation of what this gin would have been like, though all share similarly sweet qualities.
If you haven’t had a chance to try an Old Tom Gin, seek it out. It’s not far removed enough from a traditional London Dry to alienate gin purists, but it’s sweet enough to be accessible to those who don’t quite share our dry juniper disposition. The fools.
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