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Old Tom For A New Century: A Long-Lost Spirit Makes A Comeback

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The cocktail scene in the 21st century is almost as preoccupied with archaeology as mixology. Old-style saloons and faux-speakeasies are all the rage. Bartenders are reviving long-forgotten juleps, cobblers and punches whose recipes dotted 19th and early 20th century bar books by the likes of Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson. And as a result, long-forgotten libations like brandy crustas and Ward 8's are nudging aside apple martinis and cosmos at high-minded watering holes all over the world -- a most pleasing turn of events for serious drinkers.

The only problem is that many of the ingredients required for these vintage cocktails haven't been made for decades. Enter craft distillers -- small, mostly independent alchemists who have become the Doctor Frankensteins of the cocktail scene, recreating everything from bitters to absinthe using chemical analysis, vintage recipes and the dogged determination of bloodhounds on the scent.

Among the most legendary vintage cocktails is the Martinez, which evolved from its humble origins in the mid-1800s into the martini, the most famous and iconic alcoholic beverage of modern times. On first glance -- and sip -- you wouldn't know that the two cocktails have anything in common. Where a martini uses a whisper, trickle or splash of dry vermouth awash in a glass of dry gin or vodka, the Martinez is more than half vermouth, and sweet vermouth at that. Moreover, the gin that's used isn't even modern-day London Dry gin, but a curious, long-extinct animal known as Old Tom gin.

The origins of Old Tom gin are murky, and to even get an accurate definition of it is pretty difficult. Gaz Regan, in his invaluable tome The Bartender's Gin Compendium, explains it thusly: "... at some point in the early 1800s, when distillers started adding sugar to their gins, probably to disguise their badly made spirits, Old Tom became a term used to describe sweetened gins." So far, so good. But gin itself took many different forms in the 19th century. As cocktail historian/bon vivant David Wondrich told me, "There was no one way of making it, and as distilling technology changed... what was Old Tom at the beginning of the century would have been pretty unrecognizable from what it was at the end of the century."

So Old Tom wasn't just sweetened gin, it was lots of different kinds of sweetened gins. There was London Dry gin -- a neutral grain spirit (a/k/a vodka) flavored with juniper and other botanicals and spices. But there were gins that had been aged in wood for various amounts of time, usually weeks or months. And then there were Dutch-style genevers, which employed longer aging and added malt wine to the neutral spirit.

Confused yet? Then you can imagine how any modern bartender who wanted to recreate an authentic 19th century Martinez must have felt. Amazingly, for the better part of a century it was nearly impossible to whip up a historically accurate version of one of the most important libations in cocktail history.

Today, however, there are two Old Tom gins on the market and another one that doesn't call itself Old Tom but comes pretty damn close, as far as I'm concerned. Each one is distinct from the others, representing different styles and eras of ur-cocktailianism. I tried them three ways: neat; on the rocks; and in a Martinez. Historically, the Martinez called for two parts sweet vermouth to one part gin, but since I wanted to taste more of the gins (and because of the ingrained bias of my modern palate), I reversed the proportions. What can I say -- I'm not ready to jump in the way-back machine just yet.

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If you want to taste a bit of history and mix up your own Martinez, here's Jerry Thomas' own recipe, from his 1887 classic Bar-Tenders' Guide (as quoted by David Wondrich in his wonderful book, Imbibe!):

1 dash Boker's Bitters (Angostura will do as well)
2 dashes (1 tsp) maraschino liqueur
1 oz. Old Tom gin
2 oz. sweet vermouth (as noted above, I reversed the proportions of vermouth and gin, but this is the original recipe)
2 small lumps of ice (use more if desired)

Shake thoroughly (according to Thomas; most modern-day bartenders would stir this libation) and strain into a large cocktail glass. Add a slice of lemon for garnish and serve. For a sweeter drink (more for 19th century palates, but you have the option) add 1/2 tsp gum syrup.

Here's another vintage Old Tom cocktail recipe -- in fact it's called the Old Tom Gin Cocktail -- as seen in the Modern Bartenders' Guide from 1884:

2-3 dashes gum syrup
1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
1-2 dashes Curacao
1 wine-glass (about 4 oz.) Old Tom gin

Stir well, strain into a cocktail glass, garnish with a twist of lemon.

And for a vintage twist on classic drinks, try Old Tom in place of London Dry gin in a Tom Collins or gin & tonic.

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