A bit of gin history with Tanqueray’s Old Tom gin

Gin is one of those spirits like tequila that invokes strong feelings. When people say they “don’t like gin,” I suspect many just haven’t met the right gin yet. Most people’s experience and perception of gin is based on the London Dry style – Gordon’s, Seagrams, Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, etc… – all London Dry gins with a strong juniper component. The “dry” in the name indicates that little or no sweetening is added. However, London Dry wasn’t always the big dog of gin. In this post I’ll look at Tanqueray Old Tom gin, a new release based on a recipe from 1835, giving us the chance to create pre-prohibition era cocktails closer (in theory) to what they tasted like originally.

Most gin origin stories start with genever, aka jenever, aka “Holland gin.” Genever has a sweet, funky, somewhat malty flavor in addition to the juniper note. (Juniper was originally added as a flavoring to mask the bad flavor results of primitive distilling techniques.) Genever is still made today in the Netherlands, and Mrs. Wonk brought me back several bottles from her recent trip there.  Most genevers come in cylindrical brown clay bottles—easily recognizable on a back bar or in a retail store. In his book Imbibe, David Wondrich points out that genever was likely what was meant by “gin” in the first wave of cocktails that came about in the mid-1800s.

While the Dutch were making genever, UK distillers were making what later became known as “Old Tom” gin. Like genever, it’s juniper flavored and sweet, but nowhere near as malty. The Old Tom name allegedly comes from a picture of black cat — “Tom” –that hung outside a London bar. Imbibers would push coins through a slot in the wall and receive a shot of the gin in return through a pipe connecting the bartender to patrons outside.

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Around 1900, London Dry-style gins began to dominate the gin world. More recently, “New American” or “New Western” style gins have come to the foreground, partially because hundreds of new distilleries have opened in the US in recent years, and gin is a relatively quick and simple spirit to make, leading to sales sooner rather than following the many years of barrel aging often required for other spirits. Looking to distinguish themselves, the wave of small gin distilleries emphasize their own unique flavor profiles, often leaving the juniper in the background. With all the established London Dry gins and all sorts of New Western style gins vying for attention, Old Tom gins weren’t getting much love, at least not here in the United States.

Things took a turn in 2007, when in collaboration with David Wondrich, Hayman’s introduced an Old Tom gin. Since then, a few more Old Toms have popped up – others I’ve had first-hand experience with include Ransom, Sound Spirits, and Jensen. With the recent release of the Tanquery’s Old Tom gin it’s interesting to see a much bigger player enter the market. Let’s see how Tanqueray Old Tom fares.

Coming in at 94.6 proof, the Tanqueray Old Tom is delightfully smooth. It starts out with lime and juniper and ends with a bit of pepper. Compared to the Hayman’s Old Tom that I tasted it side-by-side with, the Tanqueray had more aromatic definition. I could easily sip the Tanqueray with just a big ice cube in a glass. I used it in two classic cocktails known for specifying Old Tom style gin, and both were very enjoyable, not only to myself but Mrs. Wonk (an Old Tom fangirl from her first discovery) and a friend who seeks out good gins.

First up is the Martinez, considered a precursor to the Martini and with strong similarities to a Manhattan. As usual, recipes for the Martinez are all over the map, ratio wise, so I experimented to come up with proportions that provide balance while keeping most of the gin flavors readily discernible:

Martinez

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  • 2 oz Tanqueray Old Tom Gin
  • 1.25 oz Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
  • 0.125 oz maraschino liqueur (e.g. Luxardo)
  • 4 dashes orange bitters (I used Bittercube)

Stir with ice, serve in chilled coupe.

The second recipe is the Casino Cocktail, a very gin-forward drink that despite its miniscule amount of lemon and maraschino, is extremely nice and not gin overkill. The gin sweetness is just enough to balance out the tart lemon, giving the classic sweet/sour combination that doesn’t dominate the base spirit like in so many other cocktails.

Casino Cocktail

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  • 2 oz Tanqueray Old Tom Gin
  • 0.125 oz lemon juice
  • 0.125 oz maraschino liqueur (e.g. Luxardo)
  • 4 dashes orange bitters (I used Bittercube)Shake with ice, strain into chilled coupe.

Tanqueray says their Old Tom is a limited edition, but at 100,000 bottles, I’m not worried it will become scarce anytime soon. The one liter bottle is a nice surprise – Other mainline Tanqueray products come in either 750ml or 1.75L here in the US, and I much prefer the one liter format for its optimal use of shelf space. The bottle is the traditional Tanqueray shape, patterned after a cocktail shaker. Where the normal green Tanqueray bottle has a red insignia seal near the top, the Old Tom’s seal is blue, a small detail, but appreciated.

Below the main front label is a smaller label containing the unique bottle number. Immediately before the number on my bottle was “CC,” which I initially dismissed as some part of a product code. However, while looking online I noticed other bottles had different letters. It turns out they’re the initials of ten cocktails that Tanqueray suggests using the Old Tom gin in. On my bottle, the “CC” is “Casino Cocktail,” while others have initials like “TC” (Tom Collins) and “GD” (Gin Daisy). A bit gimmicky, but fun nonetheless.

Pricewise, the Tanqueray Old Tom goes for between $31 and $35 at my usual U.S. sources. That may seem a little expensive, but that’s for a liter, not the usual 750ml bottle size. It works out to an equivalent of $24 for 750ml, about $4 more than your basic Tanqueray London Dry, but at the bottom end of the price scale compared to other available Old Toms for the same quantity. For a gin I enjoy this much, that’s a bargain.

Disclosure: I was provided a sample bottle for review purposes, but all opinions are strictly my own.

 

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