This gin’s reputation precedes itself somewhat. Particularly during the long dark era in which Old Tom Gin was completely unavailable. Its name taunted people from afar, with the possibility/potentiality of a long lost style still extant on some far away tropical location. Only available in that tropical location. I mean, isn’t that the dream? To have to to travel to try something?
Well the sad news is that I’m not quite sure it delivers on the promise of the name. It is not the long lost Old Tom bartenders were looking for. Or might this be?
The Old Tom Debate, concisely
Is Old Tom Gin aged? not aged? sweetened with sugar? sweetened with botanicals?
The search for a precise definition of this style eludes cocktail historians. Jerry Thomas wasn’t precise in his 19th century cocktail books, leaving many looking for the 19th century equivalent of the Gin is In: didn’t anyone out try every style of gin and write tasting notes for each? Really? Anyone? Bueller?
It seems to me that perhaps we’re looking for one style, when really, we’re talking about a vast span of time, and its likely that Old Tom Gins were hardly as simple and consistent as we’d like them to be. One unifying theory suggests that in the days before the column still, which allowed distillers to create a genuinely clean spirit, the technology and economics [in theory, you could have done many, many distillations and gotten closer to a very neutral, clear spirit, but who has the time!] resulted in harsh, unpleasant, spirits that required some sort of “doctoring up” in order to make them palatable. Yes, botanicals, widely used for flavoring at this time could have achieved this goal. But so could have sugar.
Barrel aging wasn’t a part of the style per se, but in a world where all liquids were carried in barrels, this time spent in barrels would have definitely affected the character of the spirit inside. Though perhaps some came to use barrels for flavoring/mellowing their harsh spirits, its likely that most gins of this time experienced some degree of time spent in a barrel simply as a matter of fact and having existed in this time period. Old Tom Gin is a product of technology, and the ways that we work around it.
Wray and Nephew, Old Tom Debate, Concisely
So back to the gin at hand. The base spirit is a touch harsh. It does seem to lend some grainy, grassy notes to the mix. Though this too could be an illusion, as this is a known “flavorings” added post-distillation gin, its much more difficult to separate the science of doctoring up a spirit, and the realities of the distillation process. You could add an organic molecule to a gin which would add a “hay” note to it. Because of that harshness, there is a peculiar sweetness and lift at the end, that seems to cut it back. It is not aged at all. It is perfectly clear.
In short, I think that while this may not be the high style Old Tom you want behind your bar. This may actually not be as far from the Old Tom of the 19th century as you might think.
But to summarize for emphasis, Old Tom for Wray and Nephew’s Old Tom is a brand name, not a style identifier.
On the nose, sweet, a bit of hay, citrus, some juniper, as well as a little bit of ethanol. The nose belies a certain roughness of character.
The palate is quiet at first, though it never really rises to a shout. Creamy grain at first; lemon, dry juniper, in the middle. The finish is a bit hot, with hints of metallic and other off notes. It tastes a touch artificial with each note singing at the same consistent pitch, with the interplay between the notes virtually non existent. I guess to continue the metaphor, it hits the notes, but never really comes together. The harshness on the end does no favors, though there is this light uplift at the end that seems consistent with other botanical spirits which use licorice, or that sweeten it artificially. As I said before, when something is manufactured rather than distilled, it can be challenging to separate the craft from the science.
As it said Old Tom on the bottle, we did decide to mix it in a few cocktails as if it were an Old Tom anyway:
We first tried it in a Gibson Girl, [for more on this drink]. Really herbal, with a little bit of sweetness up front. Grassy with an oxidized finish, dominated by the Vermouth. Again, branching out we tried a Tuxedo Cocktail. It was dominated by the absinthe on the nose. The palate began surprisingly quiet and a little sweet. We had some notes of juniper and citrus in the middle, with fennel seed and star anise shining on the finish. Nice finish, a good amount of complexity. But could any of it be attributed to the gin?
Coming back the classics, you put the word “Old Tom” on anything, and I’ll likely want to mix a Martinez with it. Quiet, slightly sweet of fruit, cherry in the middle with dry notes on the finish calling to mind laurel and cinnamon bark. Finish is long and relatively clean, but at this point I’m noticing something: I feel like I’m grading the cocktails based on the other ingredients rather than the gin. Its mixing down, adding a couple of the signature notes of gin, but not transforming or uplifting anything. It’s merely a “meh.”
One more drink: The Tom Collins. Lemon up front dominated, but there’s a little bit of quality and complexity in the finish. Juniper spice leads into a little bit of sharp Angostura. Though the gin doesn’t elevate the drink, it is certainly present and able to be tasted. The dash of angostura really steps in where the gin lets off and adds a spice, earthy lift to the drink.
Price: $12 / 750mL
Origin: [flag code=”JM” size=”16″ text=”no”] Jamaica
Rating: Sometimes the end result is only as good as what you put in. I can’t say much about the base spirit as any character that it might contribute is called into question with the “gin essence” that is added during the manufacturing process to give it its gin flavor. [Rating:1/5]
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