In my notes on my exploration of the ginaissance I have briefly alluded to Old Tom gin, a style of gin which has been rescued from obscurity. It has been described as the missing link, sitting halfway between the drier London dry gin and the sweeter Dutch Genever. This is because a sweetener, often sugar, is used in its distillation, something that is verboten in the production of London dry gin.
In the 19th century it was all the rage. Henry Johnson described it in his Bartender’s Manual of 1882 as one of the essential “liquors required in the bar room”. He included Old Tom in everything from a refreshing Tom Collins to a sparkling gin fizz. But over the last century or so it was a style of gin that fell out of favour. Only the revival in interest in gin and old gin recipes has restored it to its former glory as the go-to gin base for a cocktail.
How did it get its name? Well, the story goes that in 1736 Captain Dudley Bradstreet established an ingenious method of dispensing gin to counteract the government’s attempt to prohibit the sale of the hooch. He put a sign depicting a moggy in the window of his gaff and let it be known that gin could be purchased by the cat. Underneath the sign was a slot into which a customer would insert their money and the gin would be dispensed through a pipe either into a cup or directly into the toper’s mouth. This arrangement caught on and many establishments offered a service where a customer would call out “puss” and, if they heard an answering “meow”, they knew their luck was in and they would get their hands on some gin. Old Tom became an affectionate nickname for gin. In 1849 Joseph Boord registered the image of a cat for his Old tom gin, the oldest registered trademark for gin.
The increase in the sugar trade in the 19th century meant that it was within the price range of the ordinary person who as a consequence developed a sweet tooth. It was natural for gin to follow this trend and the introduction of the continuous still enabled a cleaner neutral spirit to be used as the base for Old Tom gin. Often Old Tom was advertised as sweetened gin and by the late 19th century was sold with an ABV of around 40 to 44%.
The modern revival in the interest in Old Tom was sparked by Hayman Distillers and it is appropriate, therefore, that Hayman’s Old Tom Gin should be our featured gin of the month. It comes in a distinctive square, squat bottle with green labelling and a foil cap a la a bottle of wine with a natural cork stopper. It is clear and to the nose has a distinctive juniper and zesty orange smell. To the taste it is slightly sweet with juniper dominating, although spice and citrus can be detected. The aftertaste is long-lasting and predominantly spicy.
The gin was launched in 2007 and follows a recipe perfected by a family ancestor, James Borough, in the 1860s or 70s. As noted before, all Hayman’s different gins use the same ten botanicals – juniper, coriander, lemon peel, orange peel, angelica root, cinnamon, cassia bark, orris root, liquorice and nutmeg – although the proportions differ and, of course, sugar is added for the distinctive Old Tom taste.
A very acceptable alternative to the London Dry gin I have been quaffing.