The cat's whiskers

06 May, 2015

Old Tom and classic cocktails go hand in hand. But where did Old Tom come from and where is it going? Lucy Britner attempts to find out


OLD TOM’S BEGINNINGS WERE DRIVEN BY COMMODITY, INVENTION AND DESIRE. But the details of both the name and style aren’t straightforward. Holes in history and the romance of storytelling – and drinks marketing – present exciting theories. 

It’s likely that Old Tom was the nickname for a cat. This cat appeared on signs of houses that were selling bootleg gin and it was started by Captain Dudley Bradstreet in 1736, according to a history put together by Haymans and leading gin folk such as Geraldine Coates. 

Those in want of a drink could place their money in a slot underneath the cat’s paw sign and gin would be dispensed via a funnel. And so it’s thought ‘Old Tom’ became an affectionate nickname for gin in general. 

This was also an important time for sugar in England, which was pouring in from the Caribbean. In 1802, West India Docks covered 295 acres (now mostly Canary Wharf) and, according to a handbook of London written in 1850, the docks held at any one time 148,563 casks of sugar, among other things – including 35,158 pipes of rum and Madeira. And so our nation developed a sweet tooth and sugar also helped to mask the nasties often used to make gin palatable, before advances in distilling. 

James Hayman says: “The invention of the Coffey still in 1830 allowed for a more refined base spirit. This started the evolution of the dry style of gin. Initially as distillers experimented, sugar was taken out, but it was still called Old Tom gin. For a period it was called unsweetened gin – we have labels of this description in our archives. It then evolved to be called dry gin.” 

And so it seems logical that there are recipes for Old Tom that don’t contain sugar – such as the one found by Jensen’s, in a handwritten distiller’s notebook from 1840. Sugar or not, the abiding characteristic of Old Tom remains: a higher concentration of botanicals. 

Jensen’s global brand ambassador Hannah Lanfear, once head bartender at Milk & Honey, says Jensen’s Old Tom contains a higher concentration of botanicals with a sway towards root and spice. “I see limited use for sweetened Old Toms. Sweetness is an unknown quantity and bartenders have more control if a gin isn’t sweetened,” she says. 

Last year, Jensen’s started distilling from a new site in Bermondsey, with a recently-installed still made by the company, founded by one Aeneas Coffey. You can visit for a cocktail and Lanfear says sales of Jensen’s Old Tom and London Dry are “equal”. Export markets include the US, Canada, Denmark, Belgium and Italy. “The brand is driven by a good bartending scene,” she adds. 

Hayman also claims his company’s Old Tom sales are driven by cocktail bars, rather than specific markets: “Old Tom gin is most suited to cocktail bars and therefore I don’t think it is country specific, but more bar specific. It doesn’t matter the country, it depends on what style of drinks a bar wants to serve, wherever they may be in the world.”

Keywords: Old tom

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Nick Strangeway

Bar food's blurred lines

Once upon a time pubs and bars were somewhere you went with the sole purpose of getting pissed and there wasn’t a knife and fork in sight, just a packet of dry roasted nuts.