Solving the Riddle of Old Tom Gin

This historic spirit is getting popular again, but what exactly should it taste like?


A minor, but persistent, historical mystery in the annals of alcohol is the precise nature of the great 19th-century English favorite, Old Tom gin.

If you like Charles Dickens and his teeming world of characters, you will have come across it. If you’re the type who finds amusement in poking through yellowing old cocktail books and contemplating the drinks your great-grandmother knocked back when she was on a spree, you’ll be more than familiar with it, as the spirit appears in the early recipes for the Martini, the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Tom Collins, and a number of other enduring classics of American mixology.

Even if you’re not so interested in the book-work, if you still care about what you drink you’re likely to have come across it in the places where serious cocktail-sipping is done these days, and on the shelves of the sort of liquor store that stocks 12 orange liqueurs, 21 mezcals, and 32 different gins.

That’s a fairly new development. A decade ago, you would have searched in vain for an example of Old Tom gin. The last brand standing, Boord’s, was a bottom-shelf lurker with distribution that could best be described as “quixotic” or “semi-fictional.” Old Tom was one of those old-fashioned favorites that just couldn’t keep up with the modern world. That fact imbued it with a good deal of sparkle dust in the eyes of cocktail geeks: Along with absinthe, rye whiskey, Dutch genever, Batavia arrack, and weird old liqueurs such as crème de violette and Crème Yvette, Old Tom was one of those things the modern world had taken away from us; one of the good old tipples we were forced to trade for Midori, spiced rum, and 138 different flavors of vodka. We wanted it back.

The only problem: We didn’t really know what it was, not exactly. Even worse, now, after 10 years and at least a couple of dozen different new Old Tom gins on the market, we still don’t. The books—including some by me—will tell you that it was what came before London dry gin; that it was sweetened; that sometimes it spent a little time in the barrel, and that—well, that’s pretty much where they stop. Those things aren’t precisely wrong. For mixing the occasional drink, they’re probably all you need to know. But they’re not the whole story, not by a long shot.

The real story has been elusive for a reason. In part, that’s because it involves the complex, ever shifting British excise tax system (and a lot of math). But it’s also because it’s a story that, back in 19th-century London, a lot of people didn’t particularly want told. Old Tom gin was a “compound spirit,” and compound spirits were the hot dogs of the drinks world: If you saw what went into it, you probably wouldn’t let it pass your lips.

Before getting into Old Tom itself, we’ve got to take a quick look at how the gin industry worked in 19th-century England. What follows is a little complicated, but I’ll try to keep it as clear as possible.

The Gin Trade

To make gin in 1800s London, you would have started with a grain spirit. You had to buy this alcohol from a “malt distiller,” one of a handful of huge-scale operators located in the out-of-the-way, industrial parts of the metropolis or in the surrounding counties. (After the Gin Craze of the early 1700s, when it seemed like a quarter of the houses in London had a gin-still somewhere on the premises turning out what was basically liquid crack, the British government adjusted the excise laws so that as few people as possible did the actual fermenting of grain and distilling of alcohol. Easier to control, and much easier to tax.) What you got from these firms was essentially whiskey, double pot-distilled and unaged, sold at the standard strength of “1 to 10 overproof” or “7 degrees overproof,” depending on whether you used Clarke’s hydrometer or Sikes’s. Or, as we would put it after doing a lot of math (they measured alcohol rather differently than we do), 61 percent alcohol.

That whiskey, or rather “raw spirit,” as the government labeled it with admirable honesty, wasn’t like the stuff that goes into barrels to become single-malt Scotch. For one thing, it didn’t have to be made purely from malt. There could be some wheat in there, although not more than a third of the total grain. There could be rye, unmalted barley and/or oats, as well as brewer’s draff (the stuff left over from making beer), spoiled, rat-bitten or saltwater-damaged barley, and all the other rubbish of the grain world. For another thing, the distillers were so heavily taxed that everything was about volume. They fermented as fast as possible, boiled off the alcohol in weird-shaped, shallow stills that could be worked quickly, and didn’t worry much about making a clean cut. Nor could you really shop around for a better spirit: The malt distillers worked as a cartel, and any of them trying to charge more or less or sell a better product was quickly brought into line.

The next step in the chain was the “rectifier.” Rectifiers took the raw whiskey, redistilled it once to round off some of the rough edges and a second time with a mix of botanicals to flavor it (we’ll get to that), watered it down, put it in barrels or huge earthenware jugs, and sold it. They had to water it down, because the government mandated that a “compound spirit”—basically, any spirit that had been flavored, be it cherry brandy, orange Curaçao, “mint-water,” or, of course, gin—couldn’t be sold above a certain proof: 22 degrees under proof (44.6 percent alcohol by volume) until 1819, 17 under proof (47.4 percent ABV) after that. I can’t think of any other reason for this law than to keep gin from being too strong; too keep the street corners of London free of heaps of random drunks, passed out and drooling.

After the rectifier came the retailer: the public house on the corner, the wine and spirits merchant up on the high street. What the customer wanted from them was something strong and piney and sweet—gin was invariably sweetened for consumption—and, perhaps most importantly, cheap. Gin was not an elegant spirit; British aristocrats did not sip it in their drawing rooms. Gin was what market women drank on wet, biting mornings; what coachmen nipped on while waiting by their horses; what you scraped together your farthings and ha’pennies for a shot of. It was the poor man’s solace; the nearest exit, open to all.

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At 47.4 percent ABV, what the publican and the wine-seller bought from the rectifier was strong enough, but it was unsweetened and still pretty expensive, even after the rectifier held back a good chunk of the alcohol. Their solution was the same as the modern-day corner drug dealer: They stepped on it. “Reduced” it, to use the term of art. That meant dumping the gin into a vat and adding sugar and water and, in a great many cases, a “doctor.” That was a little proprietary formula that each retailer would mix in to make the watered-down gin taste like it wasn’t watered down. Some cayenne pepper or grains of paradise for bite, a little sulfuric acid to make it throw off the right sized bubbles (the working-man’s way of testing the strength of a spirit was to shake it and look at the size and persistence of the bubbles), maybe a little quicklime to clarify it, a dash of carbonate of potash and a little alum to dry it out. The government didn’t care what you added or how much: There was no Pure Food and Drug Act and no minimum proof at which compound spirits could be sold until 1879.

Comb through London newspapers from the early 19th century, and you’ll come across countless advertisements from the merchants hawking the range of gin they carried. But that range wasn’t different brands, like it is today. It was all the same gin, but reduced to different degrees. At the top of the list was “unsweetened gin,” unreduced and straight from the rectifier—basically, London dry gin, just like we have today [SEE BELOW]. That was always expensive. Maybe not as much as imported French Cognac, but more than a poor person could afford. (This was meant not for people who liked to drink their gin unsweetened, of whom there were very few indeed, but rather for those finicky working-class aristocrats who preferred to reduce their own gin and thus drink it un-doctored and were able to pay for the privilege.)

Then came the various grades of “cordial gin,” gin that had been reduced, from the most lightly stepped-on to—well, in an 1854 analysis of gins sold in London, the Lancet found some tested out to as low as 22 percent ABV. The 39 percent difference in ABV between the 61 percent of the raw spirit and that 22 percent meant a lot of profit for somebody and a pretty nasty, heavily-doctored dram for the poor soul who could afford no better.

Old Tom

London had a lot of rectifiers, but only a few big ones. Many of their names are enshrined in the history of gin: Philip Booth & Sons, Seager and Evans, Nicholson Bros, Tanqueray & Currie, and Gordon, Son & Knight all made it into the 20th century in one form and another, and a couple of the names have survived into the 21st. Others fell by the wayside early: David Deady, John Liptrap, and Charles Smith were each leading rectifiers and helped shape the gin we drink today, but their names faded early. Another one that didn’t make it to the 20th century was perhaps the most famous of all.

Sometime in the 1770s, Benjamin Hodges, an enterprising young man from Gloucestershire, began rectifying gin in Millbank, a little enclave of Westminster tucked up against the Thames between Westminster Abbey and the fast-disappearing bit of open land known as Tothill Fields. In 1800, give or take a couple of years, he took his kinsman, Thomas Chamberlain, on as a partner. It was a strong partnership: Hodges had a good head for business and Chamberlain knew everything about distilling and rectifying.

When a potential customer—a vintner or a publican—would stop in at the distillery, Chamberlain would treat him to a glass of gin, pre-reduced and ready to drink. For an ordinary sort of customer, this would be an ordinary sort of gin, something reduced to, perhaps, 37 percent ABV, sweetened with about an ounce-and-a-half of sugar per quart (the average in the Lancet’s test). If, however, it was “a desirable customer, whom it was considered advisable to propitiate,” as the editor of Notes & Queries wrote in 1868, apparently from personal knowledge, Chamberlain would invite him into the little laboratory he kept at the back of the distillery, where he did all his compounding, and treat him to a glass of his “particular.” This was a rather stronger gin: just as sweet, but not reduced beyond 47.4 percent ABV, the highest legal proof. (There was no law to prevent rectifiers from doing this, but it was uneconomical, as the customers were going to add their own sugar anyway and had no incentive to pay extra for pre-sweetened gin, which meant that the rectifier would have to throw in the sugar for nothing.)

Before long, of course, word got out, and even the ordinary sort of customers were asking for Chamberlain’s particular, and “Old Tom’s gin” became a sort of watchword for the good stuff. In 1810, it made it into print for the first time, when a correspondent for the London Statesman dropped it into a couple of columns on the impromptu sporting activities of the sorts of people who drink gin. By 1812, it was being advertised in the newspapers. Not by Hodges & Chamberlain, of course, but by the retailers they sold their gin to. Before long, other retailers adapted the term, even if they bought their gin from Philip Booth or Seager & Evans or David Deady. As one vintner explained it in 1830, it was only the “best and strongest cordial gin” that was “sold under the general name of Old Tom.” If it wasn’t at maximum legal proof, like the stuff Old Tom poured in his lab, it was just under.

Old Tom himself was dead by 1817. By then, Benjamin Hodges and his son, Benjamin George, had moved the distillery directly across the river to Lambeth, where it would make enormous amounts of gin until the 1870s, when Benjamin Goeorge’s son Frederick was forced to sell out. Early on, though, the firm had cemented its reputation by bottling its Old Tom in sealed, labeled—branded, in other words—bottles and shipping them worldwide. Hodges Old Tom was the example everyone reached for when they needed to name a London gin. It was a premium product, the best on the market. Even if it was too late to trademark the name, Londoners knew.

Finally, we have to ask just what was in those bottles? One of them made it into the Lancet study, and that gives us some basic information. It was strong, for one thing: 48.2 percent ABV, which was actually above the legal proof. Sugar was five-and-a-half ounces per gallon, which works out to 26 grams—just under an ounce—for a 750-milliliter bottle. That’s sweet, but not liqueur sweet (some gins tested had more than three times that amount). By 1854, the base spirit that Hodges was buying from the malt distillers would have been much cleaner and lighter than anything Old Tom himself worked with, since the distillers had switched to modern continuous stills, much like the ones used today. There would have been a little color to the gin: an 1859 description of a visit to the distillery notes, besides the four huge pot-stills, “about 60 immense vats,” huge wooden tanks where the gin was pumped when it came off the still. These would have worked much like the vats reposado tequila goes into to rest after distillation.

Then there were the botanicals. Here, we have to guess: as distiller William Augustus Smyth noted in 1781, gin “has as many different flavors, as there are distillers who make it.” That was still true in 1854, and it’s still true now. But Hodges was a quality distiller, which meant that they would have used actual juniper berries in their distillation. Less scrupulous distillers used oil of juniper, or even turpentine. (Again, there was no FDA to keep them honest.) To round out the juniper, there would be coriander, for its lemony notes, angelica root, which boosts the flavor of the juniper, a little orris root, which helps to tie the other flavors together, and perhaps a couple more botanicals as grace notes—orange peel, grains of paradise, almonds, calamus root.

In 1879, the British government finally set a minimum strength of 37 percent ABV at which compound spirits could be retailed. This basically put an end to retailers reducing their own gin, as the most profit came when you added the most water. Besides, thanks to pioneers, such as Hodges & Co., who insisted on bottling their own product, customers knew what the real stuff was supposed to taste like. Strong, more than a little sweet, with a nice ping of juniper. Just the thing to mix with a little lemon juice and some soda water, or a splash of sweet vermouth and a couple of dashes of orange bitters.

The real mystery to Old Tom gin, after all this, is that it has been hiding in plain sight. It wasn’t some secret precursor of London dry gin; it had no arcane special ingredients or antiquated formulae. From the 1840s on, it was just neutral spirit flavored with the same botanicals used in London dry gin to this day. If you want to mix up some of those vintage Old Tom drinks, you can buy a bottle of one of the new bottlings on the market, of course. Or you can make like those finicky, working-class aristocrats and reduce your own. All it takes is a 750-milliliter bottle of Beefeater or Tanqueray or other old-school gin—still bottled at 47 percent alcohol (I love tradition!)—a little sugar and a little water. Five teaspoons of sugar, to be precise (or 26 grams, to be preciser), dissolved over a low flame in half an ounce of water. Let it cool, pour it into the bottle and bam: Old Tom.

It’ll be a little cloudy, but to get rid of that you need egg whites and sulfuric acid and—better let it be cloudy. If you have one of those little barrels people age cocktails in, you can put the gin in there for a week or so if you want.

But whichever you do, purchase or reduce, be sure to lift a glass to old Thomas Chamberlain, who knew everything there was to know about gin, and more than a little about customer relations.