The Old Tale of Old Tom Gin: the gin that time nearly forgot

Below is an excerpt from the September 2015 edition of GINNED! Magazine about Burleigh's Gin and the 45 West Distillery. Every month, Craft Gin Club Members receive a bottle of amazing small-batch gins and gin complements accompanied by GINNED! Magazine which is full of information about the gin, the distillery and loads of fascinating features.

The history of Burleigh’s Gin begins with the gin Craft Gin Club Members are enjoying this month, the Distiller’s Cut, the first recipe that Master Distiller Jamie Baxter concocted in the early days of his 45 West Distillery. But although the recipe is his first, Baxter did not designate it as his brand’s signature gin due to its “soft and floral” tones. 

Indeed, Baxter equates his Distiller’s Cut - which he labels as a London Dry - to a style of gin that fell out of favour in the early years of the 20th century, a style that many of us have heard of in passing but with whose characteristics we are not familiar: a style called Old Tom.  

So what is Old Tom Gin? Historically, Old Tom-style juniper spirits bridge the gap between Dutch genever - the first type that arrived in the UK with William of Orange’s troops during the Glorious Revolution - and today’s most common variety, London Dry. Genever, made with malted grains and aged in barrels, more resembles whisky in its maturation process, viscosity and more pronounced flavours whereas London Dry Gin is essentially a flavoured vodka made primarily from a neutral grain spirit distilled with a mixture of botanicals which makes the spirit less syrupy and gives it more of a bite.

Old Tom stereotypes place it between the two: not as rounded as the malted genever flavours yet softer on the palate than London Dry, the style most popular amongst gin lovers these past 100 years. But the definitive recipe eludes drinks historians who have come to the conclusion that there exists no specific definition.

An old still for Old Tom

An old still for Old Tom

With distillation methods not as advanced during the evolution of gin throughout the 1700 and 1800s, juniper-based spirits retained more impurities and harsher flavours. Many clandestine distillers covered this up with sugar. Others found botanical mixtures that would help to soften the severity of the spirit. Sometimes these spirits traveled in barrels, absorbing oils from the wood. Other times they went straight from the still to glass. The type of base spirit also varied from the malted spirits of genever to neutral vodkas. 


Despite the lack of a pure formula, one thing is for certain: Old Tom was the preferred style of gin throughout the better part of the spirit’s evolution. Cocktail historians point to newspaper articles from the 1800s that highlight it’s popularity, how Americans welcomed it to their shores as their first taste of British gin, and how pre-Prohibition cocktail books list gin-based recipes that call exclusively for Old Tom.

Some of these cocktails such as Baxter’s preferred pour with his Distiller’s Cut, the Martinez, are the focus of a resurgence in classic cocktails driven by curious bartenders, bartenders that seek out spirits that have faded with time.

To fill the demands of bartenders, several distillers have begun to replicate what they believe to be recipes that resemble the Old Toms of yore, the most widely known being the English family-owned distillery, Hayman’s. The distillery itself dates back to the mid-1800s and James Burrough, the man behind the London Dry recipe for Beefeater, a recipe instrumental in pushing Old Toms out of favour with the drinking public. 

When the distillery became known as Hayman’s after World War II, its directors eliminated their Old Tom from the product line only to revive it some sixty years later in 2007 from a blueprint passed through the generations written originally by none other than James Burrough in the 1860s.

Attesting to the lack of definitive Old Tom prescription, Hayman’s Burrough recipe calls for sugar whereas the London-based Bermondsey Distillery, makers of Jensen’s gin, released their incarnation of Old Tom from a formula absent of sugar dating back to the 1840s. 

Hayman’s is sweeter in taste. Jensen’s, more earthy. Both, however, start with neutral grain spirit and are visually clear, quite unlike the Old Tom manifestation of Oregon-based distiller, Ransom Spirits, which uses a mixed malted barley and corn base spirit and ages its gin in French oak wine barrels for three to six months, barrels that impart a brown hue to the final product. 

Despite the fact that these three brands and a number of others have begun producing lines in the style of the gin of faded fame, Old Tom remains a niche spirit next to London Dry. But at least you’ll know as you drink your Burleigh’s Distiller’s Cut this month that you are drinking a gin that evokes the spirits dispensed with old tales and classic cocktail flair in the fancy gin palaces of yesteryear

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