A Tom Collins. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

A Tom Collins, a favorite of Charles Jackson.
Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Today’s cocktail is in honor of my best friend’s latest biography out this week, Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. Jackson is all but forgotten but was the toast of Hollywood for a time and a highly regarded novelist, best known for The Lost Weekend. The Wall Street Journal calls Blake Bailey’s book “brilliant and gripping,” which is all the more amazing in that the story is largely about literary failure. The Lost Weekend was until now Jackson’s only enduring legacy, and remembered only because a great movie was made of it.

Blake, whom the Daily Beast and his next subject, Philip Roth, both called the best biographer working today, also wrote the award-winning Cheever biography, and his non-award-winning bio of Richard Yates, which was even better than Cheever in my opinion (shows you what awards are worth).

Charlie Jackson’s The Lost Weekend was the first work of fiction to treat alcoholism as something that could be treated rather than an incurable personality trait and the stuff of comedy in the movies. The travails of the protagonist, Don Birnam, are so riveting, so mortifying and precise, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t lived in full by the author. Indeed, but for a single scene it is a narrative of actual events in the life of Charles Jackson, an alcoholic, closeted gay man (the subject of his second novel), married with two daughters, who for most of his life lived mired in debt and deep inner loneliness.

To celebrate the publication of the book—not alcohol or alcoholism—I asked Blake what was Jackson’s favorite cocktail, what I might choose in honor of the now not-forgotten author:

“Charlie’s favorite cocktail, it’s a little tricky,” Blake wrote in an email. ”Don Birnam generally doesn’t fuck around with cocktails—straight rye for him—but when he goes to that elegant bar in the village he orders a ‘gin vermouth,’ and we know from that souvenir bar tab from the Dolder in Zurich that Charlie was also partial to gin vermouths as well as Manhattans. (I presume a gin vermouth was an earlier, more vermouth-heavy version of the martini?) Toward the end of his life, however, he was drinking Tom Collinses for breakfast (see top of p. 410), and that’s what I think you should offer your readers: a solid Tom Collins.”

A warning: do not have these for breakfast unless you want to wind up like Jackson, a long-washed-up writer dead of a drug overdose in the Chelsea Hotel at age 65. Blake makes it very clear that Jackson wrote The Lost Weekend only after having gotten sober (the book notes that Jackson’s 1959 Alcoholics Anonymous address to a Cleveland audience is available online). He couldn’t write worth a damn while drinking or while on pills. Aspiring writers take note: alcohol has destroyed countless American scribes.

Moreover, forced sobriety prevents you from enjoying The Hour! One of the few reliable pleasure in, as Blake often calls it, this vale of tears. So imbibe moderately.

Herewith, the Tom Collins, in effect lemonade and gin, made lively with soda water, especially refreshing in summer (or, of course, at book parties).

Congrats, Blake!

Tom Collins

  • 60 grams/2 ounces gin
  • 30 grams/1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 30 grams/1 ounce simple syrup (or 2 teaspoons sugar dissolved in the lemon juice)
  • 60 to 120 grams/2 to 4 ounces seltzer water
  • Lemon wedge, for garnish
  1. Combine the gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup (or sugar) in a highball glass, and stir well to combine.
  2. Add the seltzer to taste (I prefer equal parts gin and seltzer.)
  3. Garnish with the wedge of lemon. Drink while the beverage is lively.

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© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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13 Wonderful responses to “Friday Cocktail Hour: The Tom Collins”

  • Nina

    Can you believe I’ve never had one? I tried gin very early into my drinking years and didn’t like it, so I’ve stayed away from it as much as possible. I think now and this drink are the time to get properly acquainted.

  • Carole

    Bless you my son for homage to this wonder drink. A properly made Tom Collins in a highball glass is a thing of beauty. No cherries, not in a short glass, not sticky sweet. Clear and cold. *sigh*

  • jen

    I often make a twist on this with ginger simple syrup. So refreshing.

  • Andy

    Hi Michael—can I interchange club soda or San Pellegrino for the Seltzer?

  • Allen

    Moderation, a thing of beauty. Two is my limit, the older I get, the less I can tolerate.
    But sometimes I am in desperate need of a “mental douche”, and two is not enough to wash away the week from thought.
    Four more good books to read, (do those speed reeding courses work?), you have never recommended a bad book. I have great appreciation for them.
    Thank you – sincerely

  • Sarah Galvin (All Our Fingers in the Pie)

    The Tom Collins is a great summer drink. Up here in western Canada it is anything but warming up. Hey, I tried your bourbon version of the negroni (can’t remember what it was called). I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped. I think I’ll stick with the negroni. And I can dream about having this Tom Collins soon, I hope.

  • Paul

    People who aren’t fans of London Dry gin may prefer this drink as it was originally made, with Old Tom gin. Old Tom is sweeter with a less pronounced juniper flavor. Ransom is a very good brand. If you use Old Tom gin, reduce the amount of sugar by half.

  • Dean

    The freak March snowstorm in DC inspired me to have a good summertime afterwork cocktail, so I used your recipe to make a Tom Collins using juice from a Meyer lemon. I reduced the amount of simple syrup a little bit because these lemons are a bit sweet. The hint of orange from the Meyer lemons made it perfect. The proportions are perfect. This will become a regular. Can’t wait for the summer when I can sit on one of my Adirondack chairs watching the neighborhood stroll by and sipping one of these. Not only did you make today better, but you made me think about the months ahead. That’s what a good cocktail can do. THANKS!

  • Allen

    Trader Joes in Las Vegas has a gin by the name of Jail House. A great martini can be made with the traditional recipe, olives if you like, but an orange twist makes it. Not a lemon twist, orange.
    There is good gin, there is great gin, but there is no bad gin. If there is, mix it with tonic & lime juice, it will skip good and go directly from bad to great!
    This may be a warm climate fix only.

  • Rachel

    When I told an ex-colleague of mine about giving Tom a try (I went through a vintage cocktail making phase, but in the end my liver couldn’t cope), she reminisced about her first Tom Collins.
    For Rose, it was at her first ‘proper’ social dance when she was eighteen, almost thirty years ago in her native Ireland.
    Wearing a long gown and with drink in hand, she danced the night away.

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