Bar Stool History

How the John Collins Became the Tom Collins

The history of the enduringly popular summer gin cocktail.

Sometime around 1768, Stephen Limmer did what so many other English country lads were doing then: He left his quaint little village of Tuddenham, Suffolk, and walked the 70-odd miles to London. There, he found a job at the New Exchange Coffee House, in the Strand, right in the commercial heart of the city’s West End. A “coffee house,” at the time, was a place to get coffee, to be sure, but it was also a place to read the newspapers and magazines that were such a feature of the age and talk politics or literature and art (usually more of the former than the latter) and eat roast beef and drink punch and wine and lots of each. Every coffee house was a de facto clubhouse, with its own regulars and its own culture; its rhythms and its rituals.

The New Exchange was “remarkable for good things” to eat and drink, as one observer put it in 1796, but it was also, well, rather unruly. Our observer, James Roach, added a couplet in verse to cement the point: “A set of jovial bucks do here resort, / With Bacchus flushed, and reeling ripe for sport.” It was a hard-drinking age, and a rowdy one, and “sport” could mean anything, from cockfighting and bare-knuckle boxing to high-stakes gambling to running through the town drunk and roughing up the citizens.

After 15-odd years at the New Exchange, Limmer left to open a coffee house of his own. It’s clear from the subsequent career of this establishment that whatever moved him to leave the New Exchange, it wasn’t weariness or disgust with the antics of those jovial bucks.  

The Prince of Wales Coffee House and Limmer’s Hotel, to give the new establishment its formal name, was in Mayfair, at the north-west corner of Conduit and St. George streets, just south of Hanover Square. Then, as now, it was one of the most exclusive quarters of the city. And yet Limmer’s was, well… As Captain Rees Howell Gronow, the regency-period memoirist recalled, when he first went to Limmer’s in 1814, it was “the most dirty hotel in London,” its “coffee room” (where the patrons did their drinking) low-ceilinged, “gloomy” and “comfortless.”

But none of that mattered to Limmer’s clientele. To them, what mattered was that the establishment drew the line against merchants, bankers, solicitors and the like. If such a man (no women were allowed at Limmer’s) managed to make it past “Peg,” the one-legged porter, without having the door closed in his face, he would find himself alternately ignored and grievously overcharged—two-and-a-half shillings for a half-shilling glass of brandy, like that—until he realized he didn’t belong there and left. The people who did belong there were a stupefying mix of Lords, Barons, Marquises, and such; army officers, most of whom were from the same sorts of families as the title-bearers, bare-knuckle boxers from the poorest parts of London, bookmakers, jockeys, horse-trainers, and professional gamblers of every stripe. Sometimes the company would include a genuine celebrity such as Lord Byron, who fit right in, Beau Brummell or even the coffee-house’s namesake. In any case, by the 1810s there were a lot of them, and they kept coming even after Limmer died, rich and surrounded by his family, in 1818, and was buried back home in Tuddenham.

In return for putting up with the dirt, the gloom and the crowds—often the coffee-room was so packed that the gents used the little brown tables for chairs and even sat on the mantelpiece—Limmer’s offered its patrons exemplary food and drink and endless entertainment in the form of betting, fights, pranks, mad plans and drunken hijinks. Those could take almost any form. Some were merely rowdy: the Marquis of Waterford, who lived at the hotel, was a particular offender in that regard. If he wasn’t taking pistol-shots at the clock, which he permanently stopped, or at the steeple of Trinity Chapel across the street (gunplay was fairly common in the coffee-room), he was declaring that the room was too hot and shoveling coals out of the stove all over the carpet (the management did away with the carpet after that, preferring bare boards heavily strewn with sand), or introducing a Highland bagpiper into the company, having paid him to play for all his lungs were worth, while stripping himself naked.

Others were more violent. Limmer’s appeared frequently in the police reports of the day for its patrons’ fights with cab drivers, passersby and each other. Quite a few of those last ended up in duels, some of them fatal, such as the one to which Lord Camelford challenged Mr. Best in 1804 over some high-school level he-said-she-said, earning himself a pistol-ball in the breast and a slow, agonizing death. Some of the disturbances were pure thuggishness, as in the case of one Mr. Duff, who spying an attractive young lady passing in front of the hotel one July evening in 1839 ran out after her. “She was seized by the defendant,” as the police report says, “her clothes forced over her head, her person publicly exposed, and several slaps inflicted upon her.” He got off with a shilling fine—and a hefty payout to his victim.

Yes, this is all the very peak of entitled assholery—in many cases, quite literally, what with the titles so many of these gents bore. But unlike the entitled of our present age, these gentlemen were often forced to defend their status at the immediate risk of their lives, whether by being ready to challenge any slight with pistols at dawn or, in the case of the younger men, by standing up in front of a rank of soldiers and leading them forward with the wave of a sword, into volley after volley of half-inch lead bullets. At Waterloo, in 1815, over 700 British officers were killed or wounded, including 15 staff officers (among them a Baron and a Major General); in one regiment, the 27th Inniskillings, 16 of 19 officers were casualties. If our modern entitled bros had to buy their bad behavior at a similar price, it would not excuse it, but at least considerably fewer young men might choose to join their ranks. But I digress.

Obviously, the drinking at Limmer’s was deep. Presiding over it all was John Collin. A stout, cheerful London native, born in 1770 or thereabouts, Collin was in charge of the coffee-room from at least 1807 (and perhaps as early as 1790) until a year or two before his death in 1843. As such, he was a well-liked figure; indeed, two of the grandsons of the great playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, regulars at Limmer’s, commemorated him in a long and playful set of verses, only seven of which survive. The first of them is well known:

            My name is John Collins, head-waiter at Limmers,

                The corner of Conduit street, Hanover Square;

            My chief occupation is filling of brimmers

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                To solace young gentlemen, laden with care.

Those “brimmers”—big glasses, full to the top—held various things: Collins was known for his Ale Cup, his various “mixtures,” named after one customer or another, and the quality of the sherry and other wines he dispensed. But by the end of the 1820s, as often as not they contained Collins’ take on Gin Punch, the drink of the day among the sporting set (it had the twin recommendations of Byron having endorsed it and middle-class people being afraid of gin). As far as we can tell—nothing like a recipe survives—this began as a fairly standard mixture of Hodges Old Tom gin, lemon juice and water, sweetened with capillaire, a slightly tarted-up sugar syrup. By the 1830s, in any case, the Gin Punch at Limmer’s was proverbial, as much a fixture of the London sporting life as high-stakes betting and debt.

After Collin’s death, his assistant Sam took over the coffee room and the brimmer-filling. Limmer’s continued on pretty much as usual through the 1850s and well into the 1860s. By then, however, the kind of behavior that made Limmer’s Limmer’s was more and more out of fashion; a part of the old, unruly London that was fast yielding to the modern, Victorian city. The hotel closed in 1876, with all of its fixtures being auctioned off, including the heavy silver on which all the food was served, the clock with Waterford’s pistol-ball still lodged in it, and a silver plate two-part cocktail shaker. The hotel was then rebuilt and reopened, under the same name, but as a bright, airy establishment fit for respectable families to stay at (that Limmer’s, such as it was, closed right after the turn of the 20th century).

Even as the real Limmer’s was being erased, though, it was being commemorated. The first signs of that came in 1865, with a pair of mentions in newspapers, one from Canada and the other from Australia, of a drink called the “John Collins,” which was nothing but a simple Gin Punch, made large with ice and soda (even during his lifetime, Collin often found his name printed as “Collins”). In both cases, the drink turned up in the kind of establishment patronized by officers in the British Army—precisely the sort who hung around Limmer’s.

Seven years later, the John Collins surfaced in New York, where it was being served at the bar of the downtown branch of Delmonico’s as a hot-weather cooler. After that, its progress was rapid. In 1876, it makes it into the second edition of Jerry Thomas’s pioneering cocktail guide, and by 1880 it’s all over the United States. Only something has gone wrong with the name: now, the original recipe, with English Old Tom gin, is a “Tom Collins,” while the “John Collins” is made with Dutch genever or a domestic American imitation.

The reason for the change has a lot to do with the rise of Old Tom, a new ingredient to these shores, and something to do with a somewhat Limmer’s-y practical joke where a bar patron would tell another one he heard a certain Tom Collins badmouthing him, and that said Collins had gone on to the next bar in the “cocktail route,” as each town’s circuit of bars was known. The badmouthed customer would then get up and steam off to the next place, where the bartender, in on the joke, would tell him that Collins was there but had gone on to the next bar. And so forth. Idiotic, sure, but surprisingly popular.

The John Collins faded with the decline in genever drinking in America. The Tom Collins, however, remained one of America’s essential summer refrigerants, at least until air conditioning took some of the necessity out of such things. It was still enjoying its heyday in 1943 when, on one hot summer afternoon, the bar at the Commodore Hotel, across the street from Grand Central Station in New York, served 1,100 of them to thirsty commuters. If it’s not at that level of market penetration these days, the Tom Collins is still hanging in there, and every glass still has a dash of low ceilings, barroom marksmanship and Old John Collin. Among the surviving verses of the Sheridan brothers’ opus is this couplet, which ends Collin’s speech:

            I’m old but I’m hearty; I’m grey, but I’m merry,

                 I don’t wish to go, and few wish me gone,

As long as we’re still drinking Collinses, he’s not gone, not entirely, anyway.

John Collin’s Gin Punch

Ingredients:

2 oz Old Tom gin

1 oz Lemon juice

2 tsp Sugar

6 oz Chilled soda water

Glass: Tall, 16-ounce glass

Directions:

Add the lemon juice and sugar to a tall, 16-oz glass and stir. Add the gin and fill with ice. Top with soda. Stir again.