The Collins

Ian Wisniewski on the most refreshing of all whisky cocktails
By Ian Wisniewski
The Collins is a cocktail with a definitive mission statement: providing serious refreshment. This makes it perfect to sip by the pool, on a terrace, or in fact anywhere that you happen to be.

However, while the type of whisky within a Collins, perhaps bourbon or Scotch, can be readily apparent, any subtler details of the whisky unfortunately won’t be.

Being an adaptation rather than an original, the whisky version of the Collins descended from a recipe created at the beginning of the 19th century, by John Collins, a head waiter at Limmer’s Hotel in London’s Conduit Street. Named after its creator, this cocktail featured genever (a Dutch style of gin, which served as the prototype for British gin), combined with lemon juice and sugar, then topped up with soda water.

How popular the John Collins was beyond the confines of Limmer’s Hotel is uncertain, though this became a far more popular cocktail once it began to be made with British gin, rather than genever.

Initially this meant using the most traditional style of gin, which was sweetened with sugar and known as Old Tom. Consequently this version of the cocktail was renamed Tom Collins.

The recipe evolved again when bartenders switched from Old Tom to London dry gin, effectively a ‘sugar free’ version which emerged during the 19th century, and soon became established as the principal style.

The popularity of the Tom Collins inevitably lead to experimentation, and it began to be made with other spirits, including rum and whisky. Creating what was effectively a Collins family dynasty, ordering a Collins also entailed specifying the preferred spirit. This was simply a case of adding a suffix, turning the Collins into something of a double-barrelled surname. Asking for a ‘Tom Collins whisky,’ for example, ensured that it arrived with the right ingredients.

But with various whiskies to choose from, greater specifics were required. Depending on the recipe book you use, or the bar you are in, the
options for a whisky Collins can also be indicated by using a first name in conjunction with the Collins surname.

Mike Collins for example means a measure of Irish whiskey. Meanwhile, using the rank of Colonel Collins indicates bourbon, with Captain Collins referring to Canadian whisky.

As the Collins is ‘built’ in a glass it also offers ease of preparation, without requiring accessories such as a shaker. The whisky, lemon juice, sugar or sirop de gomme (sugar syrup) are initially stirred thoroughly over ice.

The challenge is to balance the sweetness with the sourness of the lemon juice and the whisky, without either ingredient dominating. The choice of sugar can also be influential, with brown sugar offering a more caramelised flavour than white, while gomme syrup is the easiest to incorporate.

Adding soda water also influences the texture and flavour of the resulting cocktail (depending on the level added). This is not only due to a subtle flavour of its own, but also because diluting reduces the alcoholic strength of the whisky. This in turn influences flavour delivery, with a whisky offering different nuances at various strengths.

Depending on how long it takes to consume the Collins, meltage from the ice will also add to this, which means that the first sip may taste different from the last.

Although soda water is now taken for granted, it was actually so expensive during the 19th century (when the Collins was created) that any drink containing soda water enjoyed an elevated status. This inevitably meant the core consumer group was the gentry, with a favourite means of utilising it being brandy and soda.

This was actually the most fashionable combination of the time, until the phylloxera epidemic devastated French vineyards in the late 19th century. Consequently, the level of cognac available diminished dramatically, but as there was no shortage of Scotch, the popularity of blends really began to accelerate. Soon Scotch and soda had taken over as the gentry’s drink of preference.

Being served in the eponymous Collins glass, traditionally garnished with a lemon wedge and a cherry, doesn’t indicate that the cocktail has an exclusive hold on this glass. Being tall, it’s a style of glassware that is actually intended for various long drinks beyond the Collins family, but at least it seems like a mark of distinction.