Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem

Archive for the ‘Gin’ Category

August 9th, 2017 by Cameron Collins

My Gin Craze

Martini

Here’s a fun Distilled History tidbit. I briefly mention in it the “About” page on this blog, but the first version of Distilled History didn’t have anything to do with history. Initially, this blog was going to tell people how to drink.

No joke. After brainstorming ideas with an old friend, I came up with an idea to write a St. Louis cocktail blog. The plan was to drive around St. Louis, tell some fun stories, and write blog posts about who was making a Manhattan cocktail correctly (by stirring it) and who wasn’t (by shaking it). But after a few preliminary drafts, I realized something was missing. I love drinking, but history is my true passion. Not to mention, the idea of publicly judging (and quite possibly annoying) a large group of people who have been very good to me (St. Louis bartenders), a cocktail review blog didn’t seem like the best of ideas.

So I mixed history and drinking together. And just like that, Red, Clear, or Beer became Distilled History.

Red, Clear, or Beer

I’m glad I made the switch, but seeing the original logo reminded me that Distilled History has never become the drunk I intended it to be. I’ve had great fun with St. Louis brewery histories, cocktail histories, and other drinking-related posts, but I know more alcohol is needed here. So I’m going to take a break from my favorite city (St. Louis) and focus my efforts on my favorite booze. That special spirit is gin, and the historian (and cocktail snob) Bernard DeVoto sums up my sentiments about the stuff pretty well.

Bernard DeVoto Quote

St. George Gin

Gin is also an ideal topic for this blog because it has a special story behind it. The history of gin includes riots, wars, revolutions, Italian monks, Dutch distillers, English mercenaries, and even a guy nicknamed “the Orange”. There’s an actual era in English history known as “The Gin Craze” in which an entire country took their love for gin WAY too far (and inspired the title of this post). And although many have told gin’s story already, I thought I’d give it a shot. I had fun with it, but what follows is a whirlwind trip. I did my best to hit the major points of gin’s story, but there is much more to it. Gin: A Global History by Lesley Jacobs Solomonson and The Book of Gin by Richard Barnett are both great sources (along with many others) that can fill in the gaping holes I’ve left here.

Before I get to gin itself, I have to provide a little background on gin’s essential ingredient, the juniper berry. Interestingly (and a sign of what’s to come), juniper berries aren’t actually berries. They are seed cones, and people have been adding them to foods and recipes for centuries due to the unique flavor they provide. That’s important to the subject of this post because juniper is what must be present for a distillate to be officially labeled “gin”. That’s right, along with all those gin varieties containing everything from coriander, saffron, rose petals, cinnamon, cucumber, and pine needles, every one of them must also contain juniper if “Gin” is written on the bottle.

Juniper Berries

Juniper wasn’t always just a flavor, though. As Richard Barnett details in his The Book of Gin, juniper has been lauded since ancient times for its medicinal properties. The ancient Greeks used it to cure tapeworm, the Romans rubbed it under togas as a contraceptive, and medieval Europeans placed juniper twigs in masks to help fend off the plague. Barnett also details a significant twist around the year 1050 when a bunch of monks in Salerno, Italy infused juniper in distilled wine. Their intent was to create a medicinal elixir, and the recipe was recorded in a compilation of tonics titled the Compendium Salerta. This may have been the first time juniper and alcohol came together as one, and Barnett notes this “proto-gin” is the earliest recipe for anything that resembles what we call gin today.

Jabir ibn Hayyan

From these Italian monks, we can thank the Dutch and English for gin’s evolution from a juniper-based elixir to what it is today. But before I explain why, I have to mention the process known as distillation. That process, separating components from a liquid through heating and cooling, is how alcohol is separated from fermented materials such as fruit, potatoes, and grain. Unlike beer and wine, which can happen by accident if yeast happens to be floating around, distillation is a necessary step in the production of spirits like gin and whiskey.

Distillation (as we know it today) got its start in the 8th or 9th century when alchemists like Jabir ibn Hayyan were trying to figure out how to turn cheap metal into gold. Slowly (with help from inventions like movable type), the distillation how-to manual worked its way to other parts of the world. By the mid-16th century, stills could be found all over Europe, mostly producing healing concoctions referred to as “aqua vitae” (Latin for “water of life”). But distillation, a process rooted in healing for hundreds of years, began to change when it arrived in Europe’s Low Countries.

That’s where the Dutch, a people with a hearty grain surplus and plenty of flavor creativity, embraced a new trend of recreational drinking. Intent on making elixers that tasted better, Dutch distillers began adding herbs, botanicals, and sweeteners to hide harsh tastes produced by unrefined distillation methods. It worked better than expected, and gradually national-scale industry emerged. By the mid-1600’s drinking spirits for the taste (and the intoxication that went along with it) was all the rage. The signature product was jenever, a juniper-based spirit that is maltier and sweeter than what many know as “gin”. Jenever is also known as “Dutch gin”, “Holland gin”, or even just “Hollands” (it’s also often spelled with a “g”). Today, jenever is the national liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium and remains the most popular spirit in that part of the world.

Schiedam

We should all raise our glasses to the Dutch for getting the juniper-based spirit trend going, but the next major players in the story, the English, should get a toast as well. Dutch jenever made its way to England as early as the 1500’s, but it could barely compete in a country filled with pubs serving pints of ale. But according to most gin historians, two major historical events helped England get into the gin game. As a result, jenever would evolve into distinctly English spirit with a shortened name.

William of Orange

The first was the 30 Years War (1618-1648), a conflict in which the Dutch Republic fought to win its independence from Spain. England sent an army to help the Dutch, and in the hours before going into battle, English soldiers steadied their nerves by drinking cups of jenever supplied by their Dutch allies. This is the origin of the term “Dutch Courage”, and when the Spanish were defeated, a large number of English soldiers returned home with a taste for something new.

The second event was 1688’s Glorious Revolution. That’s when the Dutch Republic’s William of Orange arrived in England to overthrow the unpopular King James II. Parliament invited William and his wife Mary to take the throne, and they became co-monarchs in 1689. Taking a page from their Dutch playbook, William and Mary encouraged grain production to get the English economy going again. One way they did that was to make it easy (really easy) to distill grain-based spirits. The industry was unregulated and untaxed, and suddenly anyone in England who wanted to make or sell gin could do so.

Still 630's Volstead's Folly

This all sounds pretty great to a present-day gin drinker, but the results were catastrophic. While some distillers adhered to high standards carried over from the Dutch, a new type of gin maker emerged. Using cheap ingredients and near-toxic levels of alcohol, libations known as “scorch-gut” and “mother’s ruin” became common in England’s major cities. Many didn’t even bother with juniper, using poisons such as turpentine and sulfuric acid to hide the taste. This gin industry was also directed entirely towards the urban poor, often manufactured in seedy back-alley gin shops and sold for pennies in grimy drinking dens. Crammed into the dirty back-alleys of cities like London and Bristol, the masses didn’t hesitate in drinking as much of it as they could. Cheaper than ale, gin helped people fend off pangs of hunger and forget about a life of impoverishment. This period, or event, or whatever stretch of Hell it was, is famously known as England’s “Gin Craze”.

The term “Gin Craze” may be a fun title for a 21st-century blog post, but it was anything but in 18th century England. In less than fifty years, consumption of distilled spirits in England’s major cities quadrupled. Debauchery ruled, with crime, murder, and suicide rates spiking while birth rates plummeted. For the first time in history, women drank to excess in public, and it wasn’t uncommon to find drunk children alongside them. In what could be the most notorious example of gin’s treacherous influence, in 1734 a woman named Judith Defour strangled her own daughter and left her body in a ditch. When forced to explain her crime, she reported she needed to sell the child’s clothes so she could afford another serving of gin.

William Hogarth's Gin Lane

It didn’t take long for many to realize that things were of control. As consumption of spirits increased, so did public outrage. Moralists, politicians, and pretty much anyone with a box to stand on started shouting about the impending collapse of society. Perhaps the most famous example of anti-gin propaganda came in the form of two prints published by William Hogarth in 1750. In “Gin Lane” Hogarth depicts a scene of London debauchery and chaos. Among other images, a baby tumbles from a drunken mother’s lap, a man is seen chewing on a bone along with a dog, and people in the distance are lifted into coffins. On the flip side, “Beer Street” shows London as a happy, productive place. Artists paint, portly people smile with mugs of ale, and everyone productively goes about their day.

William Hogarth's Beer Street

Hogarth’s (and other) efforts eventually paid off.  Parliament took its first step in 1729 with the first of eight “Gin Acts”. The first few attempts at regulation didn’t go over very well (people rioted) but Parliament continued to tweak the rules by imposing taxes on gin, restricting where gin could be sold, and even rewarding informants who reported gin-related crimes. After the final gin act was implemented in 1751, the gin craze flickered out. New regulations put the back-alley distillers out of business, and the pint of ale slowly regained its place as the preferred English method of getting a buzz.Gordon's Gin

But the taste for gin never left, and a handful of reputable distillers came to prominence by producing high-quality gins. Many of them are still around today, including Gordon’s (established in 1769), Plymouth (established in 1793), and Tanqueray (established in 1830). Gin sellers also helped improve gin’s reputation by opening classier, upscale bars known as “gin palaces”. These venues, which became popular in the 1830’s, offered a safe, well-lit (often sparkly), and sophisticated venue for one to enjoy a glass of gin.

Improvements to the distillation process also helped. The invention of the column still (also known as the Coffey still) in the mid-1800’s enabled distillers to efficiently (and continually) produce a spirit with more alcohol and subtler flavors. As a result, a style of gin unique to the English emerged. Less reliant on sweeteners and bold flavors commonly found in Dutch jenever (which is made in a pot still), “London dry” gin has since grown to become the most popular style of gin in the world.

The Drink
Martini at the Gin Room

With the Dutch and English settled into their own corners of the gin world, it’s time to bring this post to a close. There’s much more to the story (so much that it makes my head hurt), but what comes next is just too much to get into. It includes other gin varieties (such as Old Tom gin), gin’s path to America, gin during Prohibition, and the stories behind all of the wonderful gin cocktails. I’ll get to those stories in due time, it’s time to get back to St. Louis history (and ordering a much-needed) gin-based drink.

Where to get my drink to celebrate gin was a no-brainer. Few places are as dear to my heart as The Gin Room, located at 3200 South Grand in St. Louis. It’s a gin-lover’s paradise, with shelves packed with countless styles and variations of gin reaching all the way to the ceiling. I also love the place for the events that are always happening there, including gin tastings, tonic workshops, and random gin celebrations.

Best of all, the people at the Gin Room (led by my pal and owner Natasha Bahrami) know their gin. One of the few places where I get overwhelmed by the cocktail menu (a rarity), I always end up with a great recommendation at the Gin Room. The result of my latest visit was no exception, when I was served a Fillier’s martini to close out this celebration of my favorite spirit.

I’ll be back to the Gin Room (I’m even house-hunting near it), so the days ahead are sure to be filled with aqua vitae. My own gin craze will continue for years go come.

The Gin Room
January 6th, 2015 by Cameron Collins

Elmira’s Water Cure

Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York

At long last, the pen is finally moving again.

I must apologize for taking a few months off. I didn’t really go anywhere, it’s just that Distilled History needed to take a breather. I needed a break so I could throw a few back with the Campbell Family, talk James Eads with fellow history pals, and enjoy the incredible gin selection at my new favorite watering hole.  I also needed it because after bonking my head (quite badly) during a softball game in Tower Grove Park, things got a bit cloudy.

Well, maybe it was a bit worse than that. I lost my short-term memory for a few days, and docs told me that I suffered what is called a “subarachnoid hemorrhage”. It turns out that I’m actually quite lucky to be alive. Even better, I still remember all the useless stuff I’ve written about cocktails, cyclones, prostitutes, beer gardens, and all that other history I’ve compiled about my favorite city.

Well, almost my favorite city.

Elmira from East HillSome readers may recall that I am not a native St. Louisan. I’ve been here nearly twenty years, but I hail from Elmira, a small city located in upstate New York. Elmira is still, and will always be, my home.  It’s where I was born, it’s where I became smitten with the Manhattan cocktail, and perhaps most importantly, it still contains my nutty (but wonderful) mother. As much as I love St. Louis, it simply can’t compete with that.

And as I detailed a couple of years ago, Elmira also has a rich and enlightening history. And since I spent the last week sitting in my hometown drinking ungodly amounts of gin with Mom, I’m kicking off 2015 with some Elmira history. St. Louis, I’m going to be writing about you for years to come (barring additional head trauma), so hang tight. I’ll be back with you soon enough.

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Waturecure Hill RoadAs many know, Elmira’s most notable historical asset is the great American author Samuel Clemens. And despite recent unfortunate activity, Elmira is a good place. You have to scratch the surface a bit to see it, but Elmira is filled with thousands of people who are proud of the city’s history.

Elmira also has a fun little battle going with my fellow Missourians in the town of Hannibal over which area is the true “Mark Twain Country”. Hannibal has a case, but it’s tough to deny my hometown’s claim. Twain spent over twenty summers there, he fell in love (and got married) there, and best of all, he wrote much of his best stuff there.

But perhaps most significantly, he’s well… still there.

I always visit Mark Twain’s grave when I’m home in Elmira. I think it’s really cool that I can visit Twain and his beloved wife Olivia at the same time I visit a couple grandparents. All them share a current address in the (Bellefontaine-esque) Woodlawn Cemetery (and even better, my Grammy lies in peace less than twenty-five yards from another Elmira icon, Ernie Davis).

Anyway, good Elmira history goes far beyond Mark Twain. Much of it has absolutely nothing to do with the guy, but on my recent trip home I looked into a fun topic that shares a common denominator with the great author.

A simple road.

Let me paint the picture. Back in the day, perhaps after playing billiards and throwing a few back with pals at Klapproth’s Tavern on Lake Street, Mark Twain would hop into his carriage and steer it towards East Road (the same road I found myself standing on 150 years later). East Road was the path Mark Twain needed to get to Quarry Farm, his place of residence while summering in Elmira. On the way, Twain could look to his right and wave to Reverend Thomas Beecher, his good friend and the man who married him to Olivia Langdon. Beecher, an Elmira icon himself, had no difficulty acquainting himself to famous authors. His own sister only happened to write the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, a little tale she titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

(See what I’m doing here? Eat your heart out, Hannibal.)

1896 Elmira Map

Anyway, as Twain’s carriage continued upward, Twain would keep an eye out for the hard left he needed on Crane Road, the final turn needed to get him home. But Twain wouldn’t be able do it without visually swallowing the enormous complex of buildings that appeared on his left. That resort, known as “Elmira’s Water Cure”, gave the road the name it bears today, Watercure Hill Road. Almost nothing remains of the resort today (I think), but it must have been a site to see in the days of Silas and Rachel Gleason, two remarkable physicians who came to Elmira in 1852 and opened one of the first hydrotherapy resorts in the United States.

Elmira's Water Cure

Silas Gleason was born in Massachusetts in 1818. After growing up in Vermont and attending Oberlin College in Ohio, he returned to Vermont and graduated from medical school in 1844. In the same year, he married Rachel Brooks, a teacher from Vermont who became interested in studying (and ultimately practicing) medicine with her new husband. The two soon focused on a growing medical movement popular in Germany and England at the time: “Hydropathy”, or “Hydrotherapy” as it’s known today.

Hydrotherapy

As WebMD puts it, Hydrotherapy is “the use of water to treat a disease or to maintain health.” In the 1850’s, many physicians believed that warm and cold baths, compresses, spraying people with water, drinking copious amounts of water, and even tightly wrapping naked people in blankets soaked in water could help ease pain, cure disease, and help relieve symptoms of chronic ailments.

In the 19th Century, common water treatments included “head baths” for vertigo and hypertension, cold showers for people suffering from melancholia, and even “arm baths” to relieve of all things, a sore throat. Extreme treatments included strapping naked women to chairs and hosing them down, a “treatment” some believed could aid in preventing a wife from straying from her marriage.

Modern medicine has helped our ancestors realize that treating cholera or tuberculosis with a warm foot bath wasn’t gonna cut it, but hydrotherapy isn’t entirely quack medicine. It’s hard to argue that a warm bath can’t provide a brief respite to anyone having a rough go. Hydrotherapy also promoted practices such as good hygiene (during a time when bathing on a daily basis was unheard of), drinking ample amounts of clean water (instead of say, rot-gut whiskey), and even the simple relief of splashing cold water on your face after a shitty day at the office.

Fast forward to 2014, and all of us are probably practicing hydrotherapy on some level.

Rachel & Silas Gleason

Unlike the guys fire hosing women trapped in really bad marriages, it seems Elmira’s water doctors had a sense of reason to them. Silas and Rachel Gleason did not profess to be groundbreaking scientists or proponents of  rewriting medical theory. Instead, they promoted their means of treatment as a supplement to standard medical practices of the time.  They had no desire to “do away with doctors” or promote new theories in curing disease. They simply believed in improving life by making many of the same behavioral choices many of us make today. Examples include exercising daily, eating healthy, and getting outside as much as possible. The Gleasons simply believed water could assist these actions by putting the body in balance, removing toxins, and cleansing the mind.

Rachel Brooks Gleason Quote

Even without their Water Cure, the Gleasons were something a remarkable pair. While many Elmirans likely believed they were a couple of flakes , and others offered skepticism about their methods of treatment (Mark Twain included himself among this group), the Gleasons did become respected and active citizens in their new community.

Susan B. AnthonyBefore establishing the Water Cure in Elmira, Silas Gleason participated in the establishment of a medical school in central New York. He lobbied for the new school to admit female students, an almost unheard of idea at the time. But he won his case, and his wife Rachel became one of its first students. When she graduated in 1851, Rachel Gleason became one of the first women in United States history to hold a medical degree. And during many years as a co-founder of Elmira’s Water Cure, she was the only female physician in Chemung County.

This fact could explain why Susan B. Anthony took notice of the Elmira’s Water Cure and eventually became a patient. It’s also possible Anthony was drawn to Elmira by Rachel Gleason herself.  Dr. Gleason was a progressive thinker, intelligent, skilled, and undoubtedly an ideal acquaintance to have at the onset of a burgeoning women’s movement.

Elmira Water-Cure

His wife’s personal physician, Samuel Clemens called her “the almost divine Mrs. Gleason”, and insisted that she treat his wife Olivia during each instance of childbirth. In one amusing story, it’s claimed that Gleason was called to Buffalo to tend to Olivia Langdon after the birth of a son. When Dr. Gleason attempted to leave after a few days, a panicked Clemens supposedly barred the door and made “horrendous threats” about what would happen if she was allowed to escape.

In 1870, she published a book titled Talks to My Patients that became  a bestseller in the United States and England. Building on progressive ideals she held dear, the book focused primarily on women’s health, providing insight from years of treating women at the Water Cure. Along with providing advice on topics such as pregnancy and menstruation, she also displayed her progressive leanings  by promoting the use birth control and candidly telling women to simply “enjoy sex”.

Hints to Patients

In 1850, Elmira was a town of about 10,000 people (it was incorporated in 1864). After visiting Elmira to treat a patient, Silas Gleason became convinced it was the perfect setting for a new Water-Cure home. With the support of his wife, they chose a quiet hill on the east side of town with a nearby glen that provided all the water they needed.  The Gleasons called Elmira a “pretty town” with “delightful views” available among the “hills grand and the valley beautiful”. On nearly forty acres of wheat fields, they built their impressive complex. It opened to the public on June 1, 1852.

Water-Cure Dinner Horn

The main structure was four stories, flanked by two three-story wings. Over time, additional renovation and construction would expand it to enable the treatment of over 100 patients at a time. It was surrounded by nature trails, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens. It had a gymnasium, a bowling alley, and even a putting green. Bathrooms were over 100 feet long, enabling up to twenty women the ability to bathe privately at once. But Rachel Gleason was quick to point that patients should not expect hotel-like accommodations. It was a home for invalids, and strict rules were established. Along with scheduled water treatments, all patients were required to exercise twice daily, “quiet” was required during certain hours of the day, and smoking was not allowed in any part of “the Cure” except the billiard room.

Other more specific rules forbade patients from throwing anything out of open windows, driving tacks or nails in walls, and allowing children to play in the halls, the parlor, or on the veranda.

Elmira's Water-Cure

In 1852, a week’s stay at the Water-Cure ran from $7 to $10, depending on the desired level of treatment and accommodations (even an extra blanket added to the rate). That was a steep price for someone living in 1850, which means the thousands of patients treated by Silas and Rachel Gleason were usually people of means. While there, a host of resident doctors, nurses, and interns bathed, sprayed, wrapped, and dunked names of note that include the previously mentioned famed suffragette, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clara Barton, most of the Langdon Family (Mark Twain’s in-laws), several children of Brigham Young, Vice President Shuyler Colfax Jr., and even Emily Dickinson’s mother.

Stone Pillar on Watercure Hill Road

Finally, it must be noted the Water Cure was a fully successful venture. The Gleasons ran it for nearly fifty years, and it usually ran at full tilt. In the later years, it went through name changes (Gleason Sanitarium, Gleason Health Resort) and ownership changes (Dr. John C. Fisher took over in 1898) before Silas Gleason ultimately died in 1899. Moving to Buffalo after her husband’s passing, Rachel Brooks Gleason died in 1905.

As for the structure itself, the Water Cure was converted to a nursing home before closing for good in the wake of World War II. The buildings, bath houses, and remaining structures were all demolished in 1959.

Today, if one takes a drive up Watercure Hill Road (the road’s current name), it’s difficult to find any trace of what once stood at the corner where Mark Twain needed to hang a left. But take a closer look. Just past the “City of Elmira” sign, two stone pillars can be seen, hidden in the trees and brush, of an area that shows absolutely no evidence of human residence or activity.

Look for those pillars if you take a drive up East Hill. Because a century ago, those pillars marked the entrance to Silas and Rachel Gleason’s little slice of Elmira history.

The Drink
Fever Tree Tonic Water

When I first thought about the drink to pair with this post, only one came to mind. As Rachel and Silas Gleason would certainly insist, it has to be water.

But I’m going to kick it up a notch and talk a little tonic water.

I’ve been researching the history of tonic water, but that’s actually a topic for a future Distilled History post. In this post, I’d like to focus simply on the quality of tonic water. As I’ve tried to convince my dear mother, she needs to stock better tonic water in the house. And by the way, she also needs to screw the caps on tighter. Flat tonic water makes people sad (as Rachel and Silas Gleason were assuredly aware of).

Anyway, the gin and tonic is my standard drink. I love them, but I also know the g&t isn’t considered by many to be a “good” cocktail. It’s basic and kinda boring, and cheap tonic water makes them any version seem to taste the same. Even my mother (who doesn’t seem to mind flat tonic water), insists ordering a gin and tonic in a bar or restaurant simply isn’t worth it.

But like so many aspects of the cocktail scene today, even lowly tonic water is getting some love. Gin drinkers are realizing that stirring a processed tonic loaded with high fructose corn syrup does no favors to good gin. Better options include premium tonic brands like Fever Tree and tonic syrups like Jack Rudy or Tomr’s.  Any of these offer natural ingredients and a significant upgrade in taste.

Recently, I even attended a workshop at the Gin Room on South Grand (my favorite Water Cure in St. Louis) where I learned how to make my own tonic water. It was easy, fun, and as soon as I get my hands on some cinchona bark (to add the key tonic ingredient, quinine), I’ll never need a water cure other than my own.

Fever Tree Tonic Water

Notes:

Nearly all of my information for this post was gathered from a few short visits to the Chemung Valley History Museum (operated by the Chemung County Historical Society) and the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira. My short trips home don’t allow me much time for research (I didn’t even have time to get into their research room), but I’m beyond grateful to a certain archivist who pointed me towards three key sources:

  • The Chemung Historical Journal, Vol 12, No 2, December 1966
  • The Chemung Historical Journal, Vol 32, No. 2, December 1986
  • The Chemung Historical Journal, Vol 54, No. 2, December 2008
March 9th, 2014 by Cameron Collins

The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874

My Favorite Drinking BuddyOne of the joys in my life is that my dear mother can take a joke.

My mother is brilliant, effusive, hilarious, (and in a very lovely way), kinda nuts. She’s easy to make fun of, and badgering her about one of her many quirks (such as her inclination to chitchat with everyone who crosses her path) is always good fun. But Mom can also dish it back, and this sort of back-and-forth banter always makes for an amusing evening when we’re visiting. While we’re at it, the scene is usually accompanied by gin, colorful language, and laughter as we make fun of each other and (of course) others.

Frequent topics include how one should never willingly ride in a car my sister is driving, accounts of my misbehavior during high school/college/last week, or even the time Mom sprayed eyeglass cleaner in her mouth because she thought the little spray canister was a breath refresher.

I’ll also go to work on her with an annoying little game I call “That’s from St. Louis”. It’s a simple game, especially for a guy who knows thousands of useless facts about St. Louis. Here’s how it works:

During our fun chats, all I do is wait for my mother to say something that I can relate to the city of St. Louis. I’ll usually start with something trivial that everyone knows:

Mom & Cameron BanterIn the beginning of the game, Mom will usually respond with something simple like “That’s nice, dear”. But the key is to keep it going. The more random the fact, the better:

Mom & Cameron BanterAfter five or six of these, it’ll start to get to her. I’ll hear a “sigh” in return, or maybe I’ll get one of her “looks”. My mother adores the city of St. Louis, but the button pushing is getting to her. This is when I go in for the kill:

Mom & Cameron Banter(Snap)

Mom's Fed UpI actually have a good reason for telling the story about how I mildly torment my mother. It’s a good lead-in to this post, which is a first in the life of Distilled History. Instead of promoting something that did happen in St. Louis, I’m going to promote something that didn’t.

The Hot Dog: Not a World's Fair Creation

My dumb little game not only led me to learn that I had one of my facts wrong, but it also led me to the fun story behind a classic drink. It’s not exactly St. Louis history, but it’s drinking history. That’s one-half of this blog, so it’s good enough for me.

On the evening when I informed my (somewhat exasperated) mother that the gin-based Tom Collins cocktail was invented in St. Louis, I remember suddenly wondering if it was actually true. Although I’ve been told by a few reliable sources the Tom Collins was born here, I’ve fallen for more than a few myths of St. Louis before.

How to Mix Drinks

Others have as well, and that’s why we sometimes hear people incorrectly boast that the hamburger, the hot dog, and peanut butter were all invented at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. They weren’t, and minimal research will provide evidence that the three foods were around well before 1904. But all is not lost, dear St. Louis. Our magnificent fair 110 years ago can still claim the waffle ice cream cone and cotton candy.

With a bit of research, I also learned the Tom Collins cocktail also belongs in the same “Not-from-St. Louis” category as peanut butter. It turns out the classic libation of gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda was almost certainly first poured in New York City.

Many claim the drink is a St. Louis creation because of a famous bartender named Jerry Thomas, the “presiding deity” of the bar at the famous Planter’s House Hotel that once stood downtown. One of the most famous hotels west of the Mississippi in the 19th Century, it’s possible that during his tenure, Jerry Thomas served drinks to notable guests including Charles Dickens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Jefferson Davis.

The claim does have merit on the surface, because “Professor” Jerry Thomas (as he would come to be known), was in fact there. He did work as the head bartender at the Planter’s House at some point in the mid-19th Century. But it’s a flimsy claim to say he invented the Tom Collins cocktail during his tenure. Not a single shred of evidence exists to support it. In fact, there is no record of how long he was at the Planter’s House, what he did (other than tend bar), or why he eventually left.

What can’t be argued is that in the years after he left St. Louis, Jerry Thomas would become the most famous bartender in American history. This happened in part because of a benchmark book he published, The Bar-Tender’s Guide: How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. Published in 1862, it is considered the first book of cocktail recipes ever published in the United States.

"The Professor" Jerry Thomas

A significant clue that the Tom Collins cocktail is not a St. Louis creation is that the recipe doesn’t appear in the that book. The Collins doesn’t appear (for the first time in print) until the second edition, published fourteen years later in 1876. By that time, Jerry Thomas had been for years firmly rooted in his own bar on Broadway in New York City.

A second (and most convincing) clue is remarkably, a simple practical joke.

In 1874, some random fellow in the saloon-filled streets of New York City came up with an idea to provoke one of his drinking companions. It worked, and the success of the joke caused it to become a popular form of entertainment in the city. It didn’t stop there. As fast as news could travel, folks in Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and any town that could claim a bar and a guy looking to rile up his pal became a place where the prank was rehashed. It was known as The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874, and it’s one of the more amusing (and well-documented) stories in the history of drinking and mixology.

An article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 13, 1874, details how the prank worked:

How the Hoax WorkedWith his friend sufficiently riled up, the two men would set forth to locate Tom Collins. Entering the crowded saloon he was directed to, the joke’s pawn would angrily demand of the bartender “Where is Tom Collins?” Already in on the prank, the bartender would direct the man towards some unsuspecting patron about to deny being familiar with anyone named Tom Collins. In the resulting confusion, tempers would flair, the joke would eventually be realized, and the crowded bar (most certainly in on the act) would erupt with laughter.

Tom Collins Ad

Of course, this sort of scene would require a round of drinks to get everyone to simmer down and heal egos.

The prank became so popular that even newspapers became participants. False sightings of the notorious “Tom Collins” were reported, advertisements promoted his preferences in hats and cigars, and articles with titles such as “That Infernal Tom Collins!” appeared frequently when the joke succeeded. People even wrote songs to memorialize the good times had with the prank.

In one humorous account, the joke caused conflict even when the victim knew what was happening. In June 1874, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed an account of a hotel patron who became quite angry when he was handed a card that said “Tom Collins wants to see you after dinner”. Already victimized by the joke two or three times previously, the man became “wrathful”. This led to “hard words” with the identified prankster, and a “first class scrimmage hung in the balance”. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

As 1874 wound down, so did the joke. The more it was staged, the more difficult it became to find someone who’d be an unknowing patsy. But the hoax has a lasting legacy that lives on today. According to cocktail historian David Wondrich (and several other sources), it’s this joke that gave us the name of the famous Tom Collins cocktail we know today. In his book Imbibe: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar, Wondrich asserts that the ancestor of the Tom Collins is a gin-based punch with the similar name of “John Collins”. Popular in England, the recipe was likely transported across the Atlantic by British sailors visiting New York City. However, Americans have a tendency to put their own spin on things, and before long the “John Collins” became known as the “Tom Collins”.

And it’s delicious gin that gives us the answer why.

Tom Collins Quote

In 1874, the London dry version of gin (think Bombay Sapphire, for example) that many prefer today was practically unheard of. Order a gin drink in 1874 and you’d either get Dutch Jenever or British Old Tom gin. Both are sweeter and maltier versions of the London dry everyone is familiar with today. These (delicious) versions are still around today, but London dry is now the standard (due in large part to the popularity of the martini cocktail).

Anyway, when angry guys started storming into saloons in and demanding to see a “Mr. Collins”, bartenders started putting their own spin on the joke. A “Collins” was also a drink, so holding one up and bellowing back “Here’s your Mr. Collins!” became an amusing way to enhance the prank.

Title Page of Jerry Thomas's Book

The final piece of the puzzle occurred when an unknown bartender or patron decided to refer to the drink as a “Tom Collins” instead of a “John Collins”. This likely made more sense at the time, because it was very probably that Old Tom gin (or just “Old Tom”) was used to make it.

Like the hoax that had spread from bar to saloon, and town to city, so did the freshly named drink. Then, two years after the joke took the country by storm,  Jerry Thomas sat down to write the second edition of his popular cocktail recipe book. Surely recalling his own experiences from the hoax the Tom Collins recipe was included. It would be the first time the recipe appears in print. The rest, as they say, is drinking history.

Tom Collins Recipe

The Drink

The Planter's House

The location of the drink for this post is one I have been saving for few months. The Planter’s House, named after the famous St. Louis hotel, recently opened on the on the corner of Mississippi and Chouteau just north of Lafayette Square. Frequent readers of this blog will likely become very familiar with Planter’s House, because it’s going to be featured in this blog for years to come. The first time I walked in the door, I instantly recognized that St. Louis had been blessed with another place at which I could satisfy my cocktail fix.

I knew it would be good even before that because a guy named Ted Kilgore is one of the proprietors. I don’t know Mr. Kilgore personally, but his name carries weight among cocktail connoisseurs in this town. I’ve been telling people for years that the best Manhattan in St. Louis is the one he served when he ran the show at Taste. Now it’s at Planter’s House, and I’m giddy that it’s actually possible to order a pitcher of them from the cocktail menu.

The Planter's House Tom Collins

Another aspect of the (new) Planter’s House that I appreciate is the attention to St. Louis drinking history. Not only is the name of the establishment a nod to Jerry Thomas and the original Planter’s House, but the accompanying “Bullock Room” is named after a notable African-American bartender who worked in St. Louis in the early 20th Century. That’s a guy who will be getting attention in this blog sooner or later.

I’ll be back often for the Manhattans, but the purpose of my visit was to get a Tom Collins. It’s listed as one of the “House Favorites” on the Planter’s House cocktail menu, and I’ve never had a better version. My only complaint is that this brutal 2014 winter continues. Accompanied by fresh lemon juice and orange peel, I believe a Tom Collins is most enjoyable during warmer weather.

To add to my excitement, I was elated to learn that Bol’s Genever, not London dry gin, is used in the Planter’s House Tom Collins. That’s how Jerry Thomas would have prepared it.

Served in a tall Collins glass over perfectly clear ice, the drink is ideally made at Planter’s House.

Now all I have to do is get Mom, my favorite drinking buddy, back to St. Louis so I can take her to the Planter’s House for another.

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