Old Tom Gin Tasting – 10 Varieties Compared

This is the first installment to what I hope will be a continuous series entitled “Raiders of the Lost Cocktail Cabinet”, in which I will look at drinks ingredients that feature in vintage cocktail books (pre-1950), but that have since become defunct or obsolete, meaning that a true recreation of some cocktail was especially difficult.Luckily, over the recent years, there have been a growing number of innovative folks who have set about trying to recreate some of these long-lost ingredients, either using inspiration from old recipes or by backwards-engineering remaining artifacts of the products.This week we shall look at Old Tom Gin. I remember, when I first became enthusiastic about gin, I heard about Old Tom, but never tried it. The first one I ever tried was Boords (when I was in the excellent Bramble Bar in Edinburgh) and I recall being disappointed, thinking that it just tasted like normal gin.* Since then, things have changed a lot and there are many more Old Tom Gins on the market.

There is a lot of discussion about what Old Tom Gin was like and why it came about; one theory is that it was a sweetened gin and that this was partly done to disguise the taste of the gin (that was less-refined when compared to today’s standards). The fact that a lot of gin would have been stored in barrels for shipping and sale also would have meant that the wood would also have added some flavour.

It would be easy to write several articles on the origins and history of Old Tom, but as I don’t really think I have anything to add to the already excellent works out there, I shall merely say that Old Tom Gin originated during the 18th century and was available until the 1960s; it’s quite possible that Gordon’s was one of the last producers.

The focus of this article is taste. With the help of Kamil of the Graphic Bar and my friend & colleague, Mr. Clayton Hartley, we gathered 10 varieties of Old Tom Gin for us to taste. Also on our panel were: the illustrious Mrs B, Mr Adam Smithson and Master Distiller of Beefeater, Mr. Desmond Payne.

L-R:Haymans Old Tom, Home-made BAtch#2, Secret Treasures 2007 Old Tom Gin, Home-made Batch #3, Boths Old Tom Gin.

The Old Tom Gins were all tasted neat and at room temperature.

#1 Xoriguer (38%ABV)
A gin from Menorca with geographic protection and can only be made in the Port of Mahon on the island.

Nose: A fair amount of juniper, with strong floral notes, including grapeflower. Reminded some of the panel of pines and a forest.
Taste: This had a very complex start: the flavours were intense and then diminished over time in a diminuendo of flavour. Soft and silky, rich in juniper and very floral; not too sweet and had a faint, and not unpleasant, hint of soap. Well-liked by the panel.

It was suggested that this was one of the closest to Old Tom Gin and that, with a little extra sweetness and a touch more oakiness, it would be almost spot-on. With this in mind, I exposed a small batch of Xoriguer to half a dozen oak chips for 8 hours and added a touch of sugar syrup. The resultant light-golden coloured liquid emphasises the floral notes of the gin and a touch of vanilla was added from the oak, along with a smidgen more sweetness on the palette. Maybe this is pretty close? Who knows?

£21.40 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange

#2 Both’s Old Tom Gin (47%ABV)
Both’s Old Tom Gin is made by The Both’s Distillery (founded 1886) for Haromex of Germany and bottled at 47%ABV it was the strongest proof we tried. It was designed to reflect the Old Tom Gin of the 19th century for use in cocktails such as the Martinez. The label, reminiscent of fuzzy 70s wallpaper in texture, looks to have been inspired by the label of Booth’s Old Tom Gin (discontinued), this gives the packaging a nice historical edge.

Nose: citrus with herbal undertones
Taste: sweet citrus and juniper, some fennel and anise too. Reminds we of local herb liqueurs of mountainous Europe. Very silky and very pleasant to drink
I really liked this as did most of the panel although most felt it improved slightly when cut with a little water as at 47% it was a touch over-powering, even so, very good indeed.

#3 Home-made Batch #2
Firstly batch #1 was a small test batch and so there wasn’t enough for this tasting. This is based on a recipe by David Wondrich which uses a blend of gin, whisky and sugar. I decided to use the roughest gin I could find (ironically this is made by the same distillery that make my all-time favourite gin) with reference to theory of the sugar being there to make the spirit more palatable.

Nose: Fruity, sweet a bit like fruit chewing gum.
Taste: A bit to sweet for most peoples palettes, but this is something that can be rectified. some berry elements and a final flavour of Barley Sugar.

#4 Ransom Old Tom Gin (44%ABV)
Made by Ransom Spirits of Oregon, USA. It is described as an historic recreation of the type of Gin that was in fashion during the mid 1800s in America. The recipe for Ransom Old Tom Gin was developed in collaboration with David Wondrich.

Nose: Very strong nose, juniper and herbs a bit like the 1812 Gin Liqueur or Ginger Wine..
Taste: This didn’t taste like any of the others we tried, it was very bitter and although not to my taste it was liked by quite of few of the panel members, including my wife. There were some hints of dried fruits, such as Papaya as well as some complex herbal notes.

Even though this is not like the other Old Toms we liked it was antique cocktails and it could make a pronounced difference in cocktails, it’s not going to be to every-one’s taste  but those that do like it will love it.

Ransom retails for around $36 for a bottle but is not currently available in the UK.

#5 Secret Treasures 2007 (40%ABV)
This is specifically described as an “Old Tom Style” Gin and is part of Haromex‘s Secret Treasures Collection, Germany and was created by created by Master Blender, Hubertus Vallendar in Kail. The bottle we tried was one of 688 produced in 2007. It uses a double distillation process and the Juniper come from the Apennines.

Nose: soft with some juniper and floral notes, sweet elements too.
Taste: a very fresh beginning like cucumber, in particular cucumber skin. A hint of sweetness but the gin remains quite dry, some pine and a little oakiness at the end.

If you tend to find many Old Toms a bit too sweet, this is worth a try.

#6 Home-made Batch #3 (Oaked)
Made in the same way as Batch#2 but this was put in a jam jar with a few whisky barrel chippings for 24 hours.

Nose: liquorice ice-cream, caramel and onion skin.
Taste: Much better than Batch#2 the oak has mellowed out the rough edges of the gin. This was pleasant enough with hint of vanilla and caramel but sadly not much juniper. On the upside it was smooth and easy enough to drink but on the downside it was not very gin-like and it was a bit sweet.

I think recipe is a pretty good representation and can give some really good results, but like any recipe the end product is only as good as it’s ingredients also I think I made it too sweet.

L-R: Dorchester Old Tom Gin (2007), Ransom Old Tom, Xoriguer Gin, Jensens Old Tom Gin

#7 Jensen Old Tom Gin (43%ABV)
From the creator of the Bermondsey Gin, this Old Tom is based on an original recipe dating back to the 1840s. Jensen’s take the view that Old Tom was sweeter, in order to hide impurities in the gin, but they suggest that this sweetness came from a more intense botanical mix rather than adding sugar (the cost of sugar being prohibitively high).

Nose: juniper and heavy spice on the nose, one panellist said it reminded them of a glue stick, but not in a negative way. Complex with quite a bit of depth.
Taste: Not very sweet and a lot of the elements of the nose come out in the taste, pine and strong herbal elements, there finish is reminiscent of liquorice powder and this is where any sweetness comes from. Definitely distinctive from the other we tried, it rather split the opinion of the group.

£24.50 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange

#8 The Dorchester Old Tom Gin 2007 (40%ABV)
This is made exclusively for The Dorchester Hotel, London by William Grants, the folks behind Hendrick’s Gin. I gather it was created to enable the barmen to authentically recreate some of the truly classic cocktails. I don’t how many runs there have been but I have only ever seen the 2007 bottling.

Nose: delicate and fragrant. Hints of rose and sandalwood, undoubtedly perfume-like.
Taste: sweet but not without dryness, the gin also had some floral notes. It was silky and smooth with hints of lavender and violet, some panel member were reminded of coniferous forests but all agreed it was very good, well balanced with a real depth of character.

The Dorchester Old Tom Gin is available for around £70 for 70cl from The Dorchester Hotel shop.

#9 Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
This was one the first of the new recreations of Old Tom Gin it is lightly sweetened and botanically intensive and is based on an historic recipe from James Borough the ancestor of current Master Distiller of Haymans, Christopher Hayman.

Nose: good solid juniper nose, a little sweet citrus, like Orange cremes.
Taste: very clearly gin, with slightly more intense flavour and an added sweetness. A very neat product and quite easy to drink. IF you see Old Tom as sweetened gin with a little more bang from the botanicals this would be a good choice. Very good indeed.

£19.90 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange

#10 Artisan Bar at The Langham Hotel
This is a blend of two mystery gins and some nuts and is then aged in a barrel.
Nose: Very interesting, notes of tea, toffee, dark chocolate and fresh Bran flakes.
Taste: Very complex with a bitter-sweet start. Dryness to start and then some sweet nuttiness such as hazelnut and just a hint of walnut. A rather tannin like finish, such as you might get from a tea liqueur. A complex and flavourful variety that was a treat to try.
All the panel enjoyed the taste of this variety but one downside was that it wasn’t especially characteristic of gin.

It seems that the Old Toms fell, generally, into two categories: those that were more botanically intense and also sweet (Hayman’s, Dorchester, Both’s and The Home-mades), and those that were just more botanically intense (Jensen, Ransom, Secret Treasures). It also seems that it was the former category that was more popular with the panel.

THE RESULTS

#1) The Dorchester Old Tom

#2) Xoriguer Mahon Gin

#3) Both’s Old Tom

#4) Hayman’s Old Tom

#5) Langham Hotel Old Tom

However both The Dorchester and Both’s Old Tom are currently very tricky to get hold of in the UK and so as a starter Old Tom to try out a few vintage cocktails with I would suggest giving Hayman’s a try, also being around the £20 mark it’s not too expensive to experiment with.

In conclusion, for a little while I have suspected that there may not be one single description of an “Old Tom Gin” and that at different times and in different places it meant something different. Looking at the variety of characteristics of the brands we have tried and the authenticity of the methods used to create them, I think this surely must be the case.

Xoriguer was a really interesting find and I think that using it as an Old Tom (particularly if it has been slightly sugared and oaked) has a lot of potential and deserves further research.
*Following a conversation with the Production Manager at Boord’s plant in the USA, it turns out that my view was vindicated, as Boord’s Old Tom is just a normal compound gin, perfectly respectable in it’s own right, but not designed, marketed or considered (in the slightest) as a gin in the Old Tom Style; Old Tom is just their name. This is a similar situation to Wray & Nephew’s Old Tom gin.

A Special Thanks To:

James Hayman for providing us with a sample and the excellent picture of Gordon’s Old Tom, Chris Seale of Speciality drinks, Blue Island Ltd., Harald of Haromex, Kamil and the folks at Graphic bar, Mr. Clayton Hartley, Desmond Payne of Beefeater and of course, the lovely Mrs. B.

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