Barroom folklore conveys truths greater than verifiable fact could ever provide, so let’s accept as reality that the most refreshing of summertime cocktails derives its name from the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. The hoax was a kind of guttersnipe hunt: The prankster would first lead the victim to think that a mystery man known as Tom Collins was spreading foul lies about him. With the victim on the hook, the prankster would then reveal that this scoundrel, Collins, could be found at one particular watering hole or another. The mark would then charge into the joint, demanding to see Tom Collins and ready to demand satisfaction—at which point the barkeep would present him with a tall, cool, good tart gin drink topped with fizz. The quaff must have been especially welcome after storming around town all day in pursuit of a phantom slanderer.
The legend of the hoax reflects gin’s properties as a quickening zing on the palate, seriously mischievous. Gin comes to us from Holland, where the physician Franciscus Silvius began treating the body with this spirit in the 1600s. (The “Dutch courage” we commonly enjoy here is—like genever, its full-bodied cousin—flavored with juniper, coriander, and other botanicals, but we can discuss its particulars another time, perhaps over a herring platter.) In the 1700s, a craze for “Madame Geneva” swept England with such force as to generate statistics that defy belief. Iain Gately writes in Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol that by 1723, it was as if “every man, woman, and child in London knocked back more than a pint of gin per head per week.” The lower classes bore the brunt of a resultant moral panic, as a tract by the novelist Henry Fielding indicates: “A new kind of drunkenness, unknown to our ancestors, is lately sprung up amongst us, which, if not put a stop to, will infallibly destroy a great part of the inferior people.”