The strange history of the classic cocktail
Even by today’s standards, the pre-Internet trolls of 1874 had a pretty bizarre sense of humor. Not unlike our own viral stars, the pranksters of the 19th century knew how to annoy and confuse their victims through the classic bait and switch maneuver. Case in point: the Tom Collins Hoax of 1874, which produced the summertime favorite Tom Collins cocktail.
Here’s how it worked: As you were walking unsuspectingly through the city, a concerned man would approach and ask if you’d heard of Tom Collins. The man would then claim that Tom Collins was talking about you behind your back, spreading some nasty lies “just around the corner.” The trickster would convince you that this Tom fella was jabbering away in “the vilest manner,” until you became so agitated that you’d rush into the nearest bar and demand to see the nonexistent busybody. If the prankster were really committed, someone would be waiting at the bar to tell you that Tom Collins had just decamped to another watering hole down the block. You could spend all day searching out this imaginary slanderer.
What now seems like a had to be there gag rapidly spread across the country. In June of 1874, the oblivious Decatur, Illinois Daily Republican ran a story titled “Tom Collins is Still Among Us,” reporting:
“This individual kept up his nefarious business of slandering our citizens all day yesterday. But we believe that he succeeded in keeping out of the way of his pursuers. In several instances he came well nigh being caught, having left certain places but a very few moments before the arrival of those who were hunting him. His movements are watched to-day with the utmost vigilance.”
Sensing a good business opportunity, one enterprising bartender had the idea to to serve up a fizzy gin drink under the name Tom Collins. Victims of the hoax who stormed into the bar hoping to find the nefarious Tom Collins were now met with a refreshing gin sour. The viral prank would fizzle out within a year, but the drink’s popularity took on a life of its own.
First recorded in the 1876 edition of the Jerry Thomas’ Bar-tender’s Guide, the recipe called for 5 or 6 dashes of gum syrup, the juice of a small lemon, a large wine-glass of gin, and 2 to 3 lumps of ice. By the 1880s, the drink had made its way into most bars across the country, where it reigns to this day as a go-to summer cocktail.
We have the pranksters of 1874 to thank for that, and also for reminding us that our forbearers weren’t actually as well-mannered and stuffy as we may chose to remember them. They were pioneers of the non-sequitur troll, and we should all raise a Tom Collins to their inventive spirits while watching this mind-blowing, never-before-seen video of life in the old days.