About halfway through Aaron Sorkin's new flick, The Trial of the Chicago 7, activist Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong) is seen in a flashback as he chats up a woman in a bar. "I know it's kind of a country club drink," he says, gesturing to the Tom Collins she'd just sent him, "But they're delicious."
He opens with the drink's origin story—or at least, the story that he kind of remembers. "A man in England named Tom Collins claimed in 1894 to have invented it," he said. "But then another man whose name I've forgotten said no, he'd invented it two years earlier, and I think there was a lawsuit."
Viewers may find this to be an interesting side story in the film, which explores the 1969 trial of seven defendants (including Abbie Hoffman) charged by the federal government after participating in anti-Vietnam protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But apologies to the Sorkin stans—while the rest of the film was hopefully fact-checked more thoroughly, this cocktail's tale of origin apparently was not. "The drink definitely predates 1894," drinks historian Jeff Berry told VICE. "Like much of what 'Jerry Rubin' said, it's pure tomfoolery, no pun intended."
Although the Tom Collins really does have a tangled transatlantic history, it wasn't named for an Englishman. And not to go all 'well, actually' on a flick that never claimed to be a documentary, but part of the long drink's backstory is that it was inadvertently popularized by a 'Tom Collins' who didn't exist at all.
According to cocktail historian David Wondrich, Tom Collins wasn't even the drink's original name. In the 1820s, a man named John Collin ran the coffee room at Limmer's Hotel, a place that was referred to as “the most dirty hotel in London" in the kind of book that served as a 19th-century Yelp page. Collin had adapted another London bartender's recipe for gin punch, frequently mixing his own version, which was a combination of Old Tom gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup, and soda water. The drink was a hit, and Collin's successor kept serving it until Limmer's closed in 1876.
By 1865, the punch recipe had been printed in an Australian and a Canadian newspaper, but the drink was being called a "John Collins." In his James Beard award-winning book Imbibe!, Wondrich suggested that the recipe might've made its way across the Atlantic with British army officers who'd downed them in England before shipping out. In 1876, the drink was added to the second printing of iconic mixologist Jerry Thomas' seminal book, The Bar-Tender's Guide, but he'd given it a different first name. Thomas included three versions of the Tom Collins: one with brandy, one with whiskey, and one with gin.
So what gives? Basically people had to make their own fun in the late 19th century, and sometimes that meant being a dick to people who just wanted a drink. A ridiculously popular joke in the northeast United States involved telling a guy at the bar that 'Tom Collins' had just been there telling outrageous stories about him, but left to go to get a drink at another joint. The now-irritated person would then go to that bar to ask where Tom Collins was, only to be told that he'd been chatting shit before heading to a third bar. HILARIOUS!
"Have you seen Tom Collins?" The Gettysburg Compiler asked in 1874. "If you haven't perhaps you had better do so, and as quick as you can, for he is talking about you in a very rough manner, calling you hard names and altogether saying things about you that are rather calculated, to induce people to believe there is nothing you wouldn't steal short of a red-hot stove. Other little things of that nature he is openly speaking in public places, and as a friend, we think you ought to take some notice of them, and of Mr. Tom Collins." It describes this premise as the "cheerful substance" of a "a very successful practical joke which has been going the rounds of the city." The Compiler also says the popular prank originated in New York, and spread to other regions after it burned out there.
So yeah, somehow asking about a fake Tom Collins might've evolved into being served a real drink. Despite what was said in The Trial of the Chicago 7, it existed well before 1894, and it was never caught in a legal battle. "I've never heard of such a lawsuit, certainly not for the Collins," Wondrich told VICE in an email. "There was a lawsuit in the 1930s over the version of the Daiquiri known as the 'Bacardi Cocktail' [because] bartenders were making it with other brands of rum, and Bacardi sued. That was a widely publicized affair. The Painkiller and the Dark and Stormy have had some kind of legal action to protect their trademarks. But back in the 1890s, such things were not lawsuit-fodder."
He adds that if lawyers had been involved, it would've been hard for historians to miss. "In general, while you never know with this stuff and new material turns up every day, I think if there was a lawsuit about the origins of the Collins in the 1890s, it would have been reported," he said. "That's the sort of item that got reprinted frequently in newspapers around the country."
Back in that flick, after Rubin misremembered a few things, the woman he was trying to impress didn't seem to know what to do with that info. "That's a surprising amount of controversy for gin and lemonade," she replied.
Now THAT's something we can agree with.