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.
The first Old Tom to re-emerge in the 21st century was from Hayman's, a British distiller whose heritage goes back to Old Tom's heyday. To quote the company's website, it allegedly uses "an original Old Tom gin recipe in the family archives." When "the family" includes James Burrough, the man who acquired Hayman Distillers in 1863 and later founded Beefeater Gin, it's quite likely that you'll be getting an accurate, and very well-made, Old Tom. Hayman's is essentially a sweetened London Dry gin in the style that was popular at the end of the 19th century, when the Martinez was turning into the proto-martini and gin was slowly becoming codified as the dry, complex spirit we know today. When sampled neat, Hayman's has a floral and aromatic nose that's just short of cloying, heavy on the juniper and citrus. It's got a lush, velvety mouth feel, with strong notes of pepper and citrus along with the added sugar. If Hayman's didn't have its century-old pedigree, it could almost be called a New Western Dry gin (a/k/a gins that don't taste like traditional juniper-dominated gin). On the rocks, it gains a malty edge, and the ice cuts the sweetness a lot. In a Martinez, it's sensational. The citrus really comes out on first sip, with the malt flavor showing up in the aftertaste. It's very clean, and while it's certainly flavorful enough to stand up to vermouth, it's also surprisingly mild -- in fact, it reminds me a little bit of Plymouth gin. Hayman's is right up your alley if you want a classic late-19th century Old Tom gin. But what if you want to go back even further, way back to the beginning of the modern cocktail era? Well, then you'll need a whole 'nuther kind of Old Tom. And for that, you'll have to look to Oregon, the home state of genius distiller Tad Seestedt and his Ransom Old Tom gin, which is one of the finest and most unusual spirits I've ever had the pleasure of imbibing.
Seestedt, with David Wondrich to guide him along the path of historical accuracy, has brought back to life a type of Old Tom that was around when Abe Lincoln was an obscure Illinois lawyer and Jerry Thomas, the most legendary bartender of the 19th century, was still a relative unknown -- Wondrich describes it as "almost pre-Victorian, it's almost late Georgian." Looking at Ransom Old Tom, and then tasting it, a 21st century martini drinker will probably say, "This is gin?!" Well, yes, although it's got more in common with Dutch genevers (also known as Holland gin, at the time the most popular gin in the States), and even American whiskey, than with modern London Dry gin. Ransom Old Tom employs juniper and other traditional gin botanicals (orange, coriander and angelica, to name a few), but that's about where the similarities to modern-day gin end. Instead of using neutral grain spirits, Seestedt blends in a high percentage of barley-based whiskey. And at the end of the process, the gin is barrel-aged, giving it a whiskey-ish amber color. The first taste of Ransom Old Tom is mind-blowing, or rather, taste bud-blowing. It's incredibly malty, with strong juniper and citrus notes and just a hint of sweetness. On ice, it opens up even more to reveal wood, corn and a little more sugar. It's one of the most complex spirits you'll ever try. In a Martinez... well, let's just say you haven't had a Martinez until you've tried it with Ransom. Its carnival of flavor mixes most harmoniously with the vermouth, making what could be a heavy, sodden drink a surprisingly light concoction. To think that this stuff went out of style!
Ransom and Hayman's are the only two readily available Old Tom gins on the market, but over the last couple of years, another gin, going by a different name, has snuck in under the radar. Citadelle Reserve Gin made its debut in 2008 as a limited edition bottling whose recipe gets tweaked annually. It's different from Old Tom gins in that it doesn't have sugar added, but it is aged for six months in lightly charred oak barrels, and its relatively sweet botanical mix is used to complement the flavors imparted by the wood. So is it a real Old Tom? Well, not quite. In a Martinez, it can't fight off the sweetness of the vermouth, and the drink becomes a bit heavy and syrupy. Taken neat, it's a little overly floral, and I taste a whole lot of a cinnamon-like spice, which Citadelle says is grains of paradise. Either way, there's more of it than I'd prefer. On the rocks or with a little tonic, however, the similarities to Old Tom become a lot more pronounced, as the wood moves to the forefront and the sweetness and spice are better balanced. If there weren't authentic Old Toms on the market, I'd call this the next best thing, and it's quite good when substituted for gin in more modern cocktails.
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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