There's quite some confusion going on regarding the Tom Collins cocktail and the John Collins cocktail. Some say it's two names for the same drink, but that's not quite right. Others say one is based on Gin while the other is made with Whiskey. But that is not entirely correct either. So what is the difference between a Tom Collins and a John Collins?
Tom Collins vs. John Collins
The Tom Collins is a drink made with Old Tom Gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda water. The John Collins, in turn, is a mix of Dry Gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda water. If you want to take a peek at the recipe for one or both cocktails, you can find them here:
Now one might think that sounds pretty much like the same thing. And I can't argue with that. It does. Other cocktails don't change their name just because you use a specific type of Gin.
That's also the reason why some people, at one point, started to refer to the John Collins as a mix of Whiskey, lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda water instead. And to make the chaos perfect, the John Collins cocktail existed before the Tom Collins did. But what lead to this confusion?
The difference between Tom Collins and John Collins explained
How the whole thing came about is best explained by looking at the history of both drinks, which starts in the home country of Gin, the United Kingdom.
The combination of Gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup, and water most likely had been around long before either John or Tom Collins had played a role in it. Yet, in the 1810s, the London bartender John Collins named a cocktail made with these four ingredients after himself. He managed to establish the name, at least for a while.
In the 19th century, the so-called Old Tom Gin was quite popular and the typical ingredient in a John Collins. So people started ordering a Tom Collins instead of a John Collins. That new nickname became so famous that Harry Johnson, a barkeeper from the United States, used it in his book Bartender’s Manual, published in 1882.
The John Collins today
The book became a success, and that sealed the deal. The John Collins was now the Tom Collins. But with mixology becoming more and more important during the 20th century, the story behind the drink and its name resurfaced.
People became more aware again that Tom actually referred to Old Tom Gin. So, Tom Collins was the name when the recipe included Old Tom Gin. John Collins was the name when you would use any other type of Gin. And depending on who you ask, that is still the case today. We also like to stick to that old custom.
However, distinguishing between the two drinks is a bit complicated, indeed. -Even more so because the Old Tom Gin is not regulated or clearly defined. Therefore, some people now refer to the drink made with Gin -regardless of the type- as Tom Collins and use the name John Collins for a riff made with Whiskey.
Other members of the Collins cocktail family
Collins-style cocktails, in general, refer to a category of drinks made with a base spirit, lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda water. And basically, you can use any liquor and mix it with the other three ingredients. That's why the Collins family became pretty big. For instance, a Bourbon-based version would be a Colonel Collins, or an Irish Whiskey-based is called a Mike Collins.
If you want to get to know the whole clan, you can check out the article on Collins Cocktails here.