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Old Tom Gin

At one point an almost-forgotten style, Old Tom is a sweetened gin called for in many of the early recipes for sweeter gin cocktails, especially The Martinez and Tom Collins. Most of them make for a tasty G&T too!

These days, the sweeter side of gin is enjoying a revival – but what's the deal with Old Tom gin? Read on, gin explorer for the history of sweetening gin, the 1729 Gin Act, and puss and mew houses…

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: the world is teeming with all things gin. How is Old Tom different from all the others? What sets this specific style apart?

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… more questionable spirits. 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, 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. In fact, we think it's apocryphal, and it's far more likely to be due to an unusual dispensing method used by London gin houses, by way of some Georgian tax avoidance…

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 we 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 tom 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.

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.

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