This week, Tanqueray drinkers will find a new bottling on the shelf next to the familiar green bottle of London Dry: the distillery's impressive and delicious spin on an Old Tom Gin, a once-extinct liquor that's poised to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight again.
What the heck is Old Tom? People have gotten soused on botanically infused grain spirits long before Tanqueray became a household name (for the colorful historical blow-by-blow see our Guide to Gin). Old Tom is a style of gin dating back to 18th century England, falling in both historical age and character between the older, maltier Dutch Genever, and the newer, more biting London Dry.
As one of the most widely available spirits stocked in Victorian-era bars in both England and the US, this slightly richer and sweeter version of gin became a leading ingredient in the emerging cocktail scene. Many of Jerry Thomas's recipes call for the spirit by name. But by the post-war era, London Dry eclipsed Old Tom in popularity, leading to a precipitous drop in production and eventual extinction of the richer style.
Flash forward to the modern cocktail renaissance, and we find the historically minded bartender in a tricky spot. How can one mix authentic versions of old-school recipes that call for a spirit which no longer exists?
Thanks in no small part to the dedication and drive of the craft cocktail movement, the style has reemerged. Hayman's Old Tom Gin, re-created from a family recipe dating to the 1860s, launched in 2007. Small releases of The Dorchester Old Tom Gin, Secret Treasures "Old Tom Style" Gin, and Both's Old Tom Gin followed, with Oregon distiller Ransom, spurred on by cocktail historian David Wondrich, launching their variation in 2009. These gins vary widely in their interpretation and approach to the style: some are aged in oak wine barrels, some are not, some are sweetened with sugar, while others are viscous without being very sweet. Bartenders exploring historical drinks—and creating new cocktails—began trying them all.
Tanqueray has joined the fray, marking in our minds a worldwide announcement that Old Tom will return to the modern drinker's vernacular once and for all.
Master Distiller Tom Nichol went back to Charles Tanqueray's original recipe book from the 1830s for inspiration (though the execution uses newer distillation techniques). They've also gone to the archives for the packaging, pulling an original Tanqueray Old Tom Gin label from 1921.
Let's not beat around the bush: Tanqueray's new bottling is a beautiful spirit. This aromatic and full-bodied gin leads with piney juniper and sweet lime but is impeccably balanced by licorice, black pepper, and the tropical fruits of the wheat spirit. It's creamy and round (such a truly chewable gin is a first for me), yet dries out nicely with a lingering herbal finish.
Adding a drop of water to the gin—a common trick for whisky—really opens up the underlying botanicals without disturbing the spirit's structure. Tasted next to Tanqueray's standard London Dry, the difference is night and day. The London Dry is all brash juniper, bold spices, and alcoholic bite next to the Old Tom's subtlety and balanced sweetness.
How is it made? The gin starts out as neutral grain spirit re-distilled with Tuscan juniper, angelica root, coriander, and licorice in the fittingly named 'Old Tom' No. 4 copper pot still (so called because it comes from the only Tanqueray facility to survive the Blitz). They then blend in some unaged wheat spirit, a small amount of sweetener (made with beet sugar), and water to bring it down to a bottle strength of 94.6 proof.
Can You Teach An Old Tom New Tricks?
While it's anyone's guess how truly authentic this spirit is (I personally would wager it's considerably more refined than what they were drinking during the Industrial Revolution), it makes for some undeniably delicious versions of classic cocktails.
Try Old Tom in a traditional Tom Collins or a Martinez for guaranteed success. For the more adventurous, a "forgotten" gin cocktail like the luscious Ampersand or the bright, refreshing Gin Daisy makes quite clear that the real question is should you teach an Old Tom new tricks.
But if you're more of an au courant drinker, substituting Old Tom in place of a London Dry make take some adjustment. These days, we expect a crisp, clean Martini. An Old Tom Martini is a bit more sweet and full, meant for savoring slowly. Old Tom is quite nice in a Negroni where it integrates well with bitter Campari and herbal vermouth, but it falls a bit flat for my taste in a G&T, where the sweetness and subtlety founder against quinine and the added sugar of the tonic. But my personal favorite experience with the spirit was simply poured into a chilled Nick and Nora glass with a drop of water and a lemon peel twist.
Released in a limited edition of 100,000 bottles (like the Malacca before it), Tanqueray Old Tom Gin is now available nationwide at a SRP of $33 for a liter.
Have you tried Old Tom gin? What's your favorite way to drink it?
Sample provided for review consideration.