What Is Old Tom Gin Anyway?

Courtesy of Hayman's Gin
Courtesy of Hayman's Gin

If you’re new to drinking gin and have begun to explore the bottle selection at your local store, one of the first questions that you may have asked is this: What the heck is the difference between London Dry gins and Old Tom gins? Well, we’re here to help clear it up.

The name Old Tom is a reference to the cat-shaped signs that hung outside of British pubs—which were referred to as “Old Toms.” Old Tom gins taste less aggressive than their London Dry counterparts, and there are a few other key differences you should know to get acquainted with the spirit. Here, we delve into the most important factors of what defines an Old Tom gin.

It’s the “Missing Link”

If it wasn’t for the Dutch, the Brits would have never acquired their knowledge of how to make gin, nor their thirst for the spirit. In Holland, the Dutch had been making genever—gin’s ancestral spirit, which is more malty and less juniper-heavy than British gin—since the late 1500s. Old Tom gin is more akin to Dutch genever in flavor, and it’s often considered the link between the old Dutch formula and modern gin that’s made in England now. Once the British began creating London Dry gins, the style became more popular with consumers and caused the Old Tom style to disappear completely from the market until 2007.

It’s Sweeter

Until the advent of the Coffey still in 1832, most gins made in England were less refined and lower quality. To disguise the flavor of volatile compounds and esters in the distillates—and make the spirit more palatable—sugar was added. As such, most modern Old Tom recipes (like Hayman’s) follow suit and sweeten their Old Tom gins slightly.

It’s Lighter on the Juniper

Although Old Tom gins are flavored with juniper like their London Dry counterparts, they are typically less juniper-heavy. Old Tom gins are actually more akin to Dutch genever in flavor, and in turn are lighter, maltier, softer and more approachable. If you have a hard time drinking gin or don’t like its bracing botanical sharpness, you may actually prefer the Old Tom style.

It’s Often Aged in Oak

This is the most nebulous and confusing thing about Old Tom gins. There are no laws in place that require them to be aged in oak barrels—like bourbon or a rye—and not all Old Tom gins are aged. Some Old Tom gins are crystal clear and fresh off the still, while others, like Ransom’s Old Tom, are barrel aged. Ransom Spirits’ owner Tad Seestedt, who developed his Old Tom recipe with spirits and cocktail historian David Wondrich, found evidence that Old Tom gins in the 1800s would have been barrel aged only for traveling purposes, which would have imparted a slight color and added more nuance to the spirit. Depending on your taste preference (barrel aging makes a gin more naturally sweet and malty), you can buy either an unaged or an aged Old Tom. We find that most barrel aged Old Toms make better cocktails, especially in drinks like the Martinez or Negroni.