The sweeter side of gin is enjoying a revival – but what’s special about Old Tom, and what do you actually do with it? We explore the historic gin style…

Here at Master of Malt, we love a drink with an unusual backstory. And they don’t come much quirkier than the narrative behind Old Tom gin – London dry’s sweeter cousin often, but not always, branded with a cat. But first things first: bars are teeming with all things gin. How is Old Tom different from all the others crammed onto the back bar? What sets this specific style apart?

Putting the ‘old’ in Old Tom

Everything is cyclical – we might be in the grip of a gin boom right now, but our predecessors back in the 18th century also had a penchant for everything juniper. While we benefit from the subsequent decades of distillation trial and error, with all those lovely distillers and rectifiers fine-tuning their produce into delicious, delicious gins, our ancestors had to settle for… dross. Not only was quality control a non-existent entity, but those early gins were downright dangerous. Dodgy distillates would have been high in methanol, potentially deadly, and, quite frankly, absolutely vile to taste. The answer? Not to stop drinking those risky and repulsive concoctions but to sweeten the liquid with sugar or honey – or anything else those plucky imbibers had to hand to make the drink more palatable. People gotta get their gin…

Thankfully for us, today’s gins are a world apart from their age-old cousins. Those clever people behind the scenes have got their distillation processes down, perfecting time-worn production techniques to preserve the heritage of Old Tom safely and authentically – and with the utmost tastiness. We get classic Old Toms with all of the history and its remarkable character. God bless those distillers and blenders…

The sweetness makes sense. But why ‘Old Tom’?

Two stories tend to circulate as to why this type of gin has gained its unusual moniker. The first is a sad tale – cat lovers, avert your eyes.

A distiller’s feline friend once reputedly got too close to a vat of gin (lured in by that irresistible aroma, we reckon. Easily done.) and met a sad but junipery end. Poor kitty. The distiller was so upset that his gin became associated with the cat – and ‘Old Tom’ was born.

As cat people, we’d rather not believe that sorry account.

To us, it seems the likely story actually stems from government greed… sort of. Remember the aforementioned first-time-round gin boom? A LOT of people were drinking gin – which means a lot of potential tax revenue for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. So what did the powers that be do? Introduce a gin tax, putting up prices considerably for the average imbiber (This isn’t vastly different from today – if an ‘average’ bottle of gin in the UK costs £13.66, the government pockets 75% or £10.33 of the purchase price in tax and VAT, the Wine & Spirit Trade Association calculates. But I digress…).

Those entrepreneurial gin fiends had already been inventive with the Old Tom recipe – and they applied a similar level of nous to purchasing their gin, too. Drinking establishments disguised in anonymous-looking buildings started to hang up images of cats. This secret sign on the so-called puss and mew houses, somehow known to gin drinkers but not the taxman, provided a handy service. All the imbiber had to do was push payment through the wall, and gin would pour out of the cat’s mouth or paw and into their waiting glass. Like a historic, junipery vending machine. Smart.


Exploring Old Tom gins in the pub
Modern-day Old Toms

Today an array of amazing Old Tom gin expressions are available – and it’s an incredible style to explore. Yes, they’re a little sweeter than many on the market, but they are just as complex and intriguing. Topped up with tonic they make fantastic long drinks, or experiment with a Tom Collins (mix three parts Old Tom, one part lemon juice and one part sugar syrup in a glass, cap with carbonated water, garnish and serve. Splendid).

Even better: get someone else to mix up the marvellousness for you. And if you’re in Oxford, Edinburgh or Glasgow this month, you could be in luck! The good folks at Ableforth’s are taking Bathtub Old Tom on the road – and there are all kinds of surprises in store.

In partnership with Nicolson’s Pubs, the Ableforth’s team will be chatting through the history of Old Tom, offering tasters, and even prepping some extra-special cocktails to bring Old Tom to life – check out the schedule below. And if you’re not near a participating pub of an evening? Pick up a bottle of Bathtub Old Tom, or even a 3cl sample, and join the Old Tom revival today. Other Old Toms of much deliciousness include Hernö Old Tom GinVery Old Tom (That Boutique-y Gin Company), Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, and Two Birds Old Tom Gin. Why not put together your own tasting set and immerse yourself in the sweeter side of gin?

Try Bathtub Old Tom at Nicolson’s Pubs:

23 August – The Crown, 59a Cornmarket St, Oxford, OX1 3HB
24 August – The Chequers, 131 High Street, Oxford, OX1 4DH
30 August – The Kenilworth, 152-154 Rose Street, Edinburgh, EH2 3JD
31 August – The Drum & Monkey, 91 St. Vincent Street, Glasgow, G2 5TF