Old Tom gin is deeply rooted in the spirit’s history and was hugely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries; it's enjoying something of a resurgence today despite falling out of favour around the 1940’s. With a sweeter style than a classic London Dry, Old Tom gin is more appealing to those who are turned off by the overt dryness of many popular gins. It also serves as a middle ground between the London Dry style gins and the much sweeter Dutch Jenever from which all gins originated.
Gin was a fundamental problem for the country before stringent regulations were enforced regarding its distillation and sale. The general populace was stricken with serious alcoholism and terminal ailments caused by the mass consumption of backstreet gin that was often cut with lethal doses of sulphuric acid and turps. This chaotic time is perfectly encapsulated in William Hogarth’s famous Gin Lane drawing, depicting the pandemonium that was an everyday occurrence on Britain’s streets.
Despite the clear negative health implications, the English were determined to get their gin fix come what may and started adding sugar and liquorice to the poorer quality gins to make them more palatable. This was how the Old Tom style of gin was born and it remained popular through the Gin Palace era where is was used in popular cocktails of the time.
As technology progressed and distillation methods improved as a result, Old Tom gin’s popularity started to decline. After the invention of the continuous still, better quality and safer spirits were being distilled and the trend moved towards using botanicals to provide flavour. This in turn lead to tastes moving to the London Dry style of gin that remains fashionable to this day. By the 1970’s Old Tom Gin was no longer being produced.
It wasn’t until the cocktail revival of recent times that Old Tom gin was once again required. As bartenders dusted off their classic cocktail guides, it was soon realised that a core component of many drinks was no longer being made and where there is demand, supply soon follows. Brands with a rich history in gin distillation took notice and Hayman’s released their Old Tom gin in 2007 after scouring their archives for old recipes to bring back to life. New and contemporary distilleries, like the highly awarded Herno, got in on the act with each producing their own take on the Old Tom style.
So where did the connection between our feline friends and Old Tom come from? That is a question to which there is no definitive answer as there are many theories on how this style of gin got its name.
Should we believe that it was derived from one of Captain Dudley Bradstreet’s many money-making schemes where he operated a one stop gin shop to avoid the restrictions placed upon sellers in the Gin Act of 1736? He barricaded himself inside a small building and hung a sign outside displaying an old tom cat. Drinkers would place a coin in a slot and gin would be dispensed through a pipe through the wall to the desperate masses. The pipes outlet was shaped like a cat’s paw and the idea was soon ripped off by every shady gin seller out there. These operations became to be known as Puss & Mew shops.
Maybe it comes from the story where a tom cat fell into a vat of gin, obviously expiring in the process. Cats were often depicted on bottles and barrels and Boord’s of London, a hugely popular brand of gin at the time, registered this as their trademark. Many other distillers followed suite, leading to legal battles over the branding used on many gins of the time.
One other theory is that it is the namesake of Thomas Chamberlain, a reputable distiller at Hodge's Distillery who took on an eager apprentice named Thomas Norris. Chamberlain referred to his apprentice affectionately as ‘young Tom’, and when his apprenticeship was completed Norris opened a gin palace in London. He referred to his gin as ‘Old Tom’ out of respect for his teacher and barrels that were branded as such were known to be superior quality spirits.