A Tom Collins isn’t a drink just named after some guy, somewhere. It’s a drink named after nobody, nowhere. Ah, but there’s a story to go along with it all. Find out the backstory of “Have you seen Tom Collins?” — and get recipes for four original, old-fashioned versions of the Tom Collins cocktail!

Have you seen Tom Collins

Have you seen Tom Collins?

Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) on May 13, 1874

A man for whom half the people in New York are looking — a successful practical joke

New Yorkers are easily pleased. They have fairly run wild over a new joke, and it is dangerous now to ask people the conundrum, “Have you seen Tom Collins?”

The run of “the thing reminds old New Yorkers of Mike Walsh’s joke shortly after the breaking out of the California gold fever, when he started thousands of men on a hunt for Frank McLaughlin, who was said to have letters from particular friends of the hunters in California.

The Tom Collins hoax is worked in this manner: A joker meets a friend and accosts him with, “Have you seen Tom Collins?”

“No; who the deuce is Tom Collins?”

“Well, I don’t know much about him, but he says he knows all about you, and is telling terrible lies and scandals, showing up your life in the most outrageous manner.”

“Where can I find the scoundrel?”

“He generally hangs out at –‘s saloon,” replies the joker (naming some place where he is known and apt to find confederates).”

“I’ll find him, and see what it means,” and the indignant man starts off. Some say that Collins has accused them of stealing, others that they or their families have been guilty of some mean act.

Arriving at the place where Collins is supposed to be, the injured individual is perhaps told that Collins has just left, and is advised to hunt him up, as Tom is telling villainous stories about him. The search for Collins continues, but in every case, the injured man is told that “he was here a few moments ago, but has just left.”

Three days have been used up in hunting for the man Collins, and at the end of that time the victim realizes that he has been made the hero of a vile practical joke, and as a result, is mulcted in a sum sufficient to treat all his friends.

Again, on reaching the saloon, the joker inquires of the bartender, in a voice loud enough to be heard by persons near, “Have you seen Tom Collins?”

“Yes, there he is,” answers a confederate, generally pointing to the meekest looking stranger in the room.

Then follows this scene:

Victim (with fire in his eyes, walking up to stranger — “What did you mean, sir, traducing my character and lying about me to my friends?”

Stranger — “You are mistaken, sir; I have said nothing about you.”

Victim (egged on by his friends) — “You lie, you scoundrel,” at the same time making a pass for the stranger.

Then the party break out in a roar of laughter, and declare that nothing but a round of drinks at the victim’s expense will wash out the insult to the stranger.


Refreshing Classic Tom Collins Cocktail

Tom Collins cocktail recipes

It wasn’t long until bartenders around New York and beyond had a new drink on their menu — perfect for all the random souls who came in looking for Tom Collins. A sparkling, lemony alcoholic drink, it was presumably just the sort of refreshment the gents needed after they had been running around town in search of the mythical man. These three recipes were published in 1876 in The Bar-tender’s Guide, by Jerry Thomas.

Tom Collins Whiskey recipe

(Use small bar-glass)

Take 5 or 6 dashes of gum syrup.
Juice of a small lemon.
1 large wine-glass of whiskey.
2 or 3 lumps of ice.

Shake up well and strain into a large bar-glass. Fill up the glass with plain soda water and imbibe while it is lively.

MORE: Summertime is the time for tall, cool rum drinks (1971)

Tom Collins Brandy recipe

(Use large bar-glass)

The same as Tom Collins Whiskey, substituting brandy for whiskey.

Tom Collins gin recipe

(Use large bar-glass)

The same as Tom Collins Whiskey, substituting gin for whiskey.


John & Tom Collins cocktail recipes

A Tom Collins and John Collins cocktail recipe from 1882, as they appeared in Harry Johnson’s new and improved bartender’s manual.

Tom Collins cocktail recipe

(Use an extra large bar glass.)
Three-quarters tablespoon of sugar;
3 or 4 dashes of lime or lemon juice;
3 or 4 pieces of broken ice;
1 wine glass full of Old Tom gin;
1 bottle of plain soda water

Mix up well with a spoon, remove the ice, and serve.

Attention must be paid not to let the foam of the soda water spread over the glass.

MORE: 100 years of classic mint julep recipes (1862-1962)

John Collins cocktail recipe

(Use an extra large bar glass.)

1 tablespoonful of sugar;
5 to 6 dashes of lemon juice;
1 wine glass of Holland gin;
4 or 5 small lumps of ice;

Open a bottle of plain soda water, pour this into the ingredients, mix up well, remove the ice. and serve.

Careful attention must be paid when mixing the soda water with the above, not to let the foam of it spread over the glass.


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Filed under: 1870s, 1880s, Drink recipes, Food & drink, Newspapers

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