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London Dry, Plymouth, Old Tom? It's time to gin up on spirit choices

10/08/2014 12:12 EDT | Updated 12/08/2014 05:59 EST
SAN FRANCISCO - On a sunny San Francisco afternoon, bartender Chad Arnholt is setting up for the evening crowd at Trick Dog — a popular bar tucked into the eclectic Mission District — and thinking about the resurgence of Old Tom gin.

Most people have never heard of it. So Arnholt finds that a metaphor is helpful. London dry, the juniper-forward style that dominates the gin market? Well, that's like the "really sharp member of the family that you know is going to Harvard." Old Tom, on the other hand, is slightly sweeter, more like the slacker kid who is basically agreeable but unimpressive... until he surprises the world by founding a billion-dollar dot.com.

"Gin is wonderful, but it's also very strong, very pronounced. I feel like Old Tom's a little bit more easy-going and it makes its way into everything," says Arnholt.

Almost extinct, Old Tom has been getting a new lease on life as part of the overall rise of gin and the resurrection of classic cocktails. Many old cocktail recipes, including several by bartending legend Jerry Thomas, call specifically for Old Tom, and craft distillers have reintroduced the style, which falls somewhere between London dry and the sweeter, maltier genever from Holland that is gin's ancestor. Brands include Britain's Haymans, Ransom Spirits in Oregon and, as of this fall, Anchor Distilling Co. in San Francisco.

Old Tom hit the big time this year when major brand Tanqueray introduced a limited edition of 100,000 bottles of Old Tom based on a recipe by company founder Charles Tanqueray.

"It's a wonderful liquid," says Tanqueray spokesman Angus Winchester.

It's not clear where the name Old Tom comes from, though in a neat coincidence one of the Tanqueray stills used to make the spirit is nicknamed Old Tom because of its age — it was the company's only still that survived the blitz of World War II.

Bonus gin fact: London dry gin does not have to be made in London; Tanqueray used to be based in London, but has since moved operations to Scotland. Plymouth gin, on the other hand, must be made in Plymouth, England, though that is the one and only restriction on the style.

Though it can make a gin and tonic, Old Tom probably is at its best in drinks like the Negroni, the gin, Campari and red vermouth classic, or the Martinez, traditionally gin, sweet vermouth, bitters and maraschino liqueur.

Recipes vary when it comes to Old Tom, but at Tanqueray it's made from the same four botanicals as the London dry — juniper, coriander, angelica root and licorice powder — and sweetened with a small amount of beet sugar. Master distiller Tom Nichol uses two types of waters, one demineralized and a spring water.

"I was very keen to basically reproduce what Tanqueray used to sell," says Winchester.

"I'm never going to tell you that Tanqueray is the best gin in the world because what criteria do you use to judge that? Tanqueray No. 10 is credited by many for helping launch the new Western dry gin category, allowing the fresh citrus to share the stage with juniper," he says. "Now, with Tanqueray Old Tom we can legitimately say we don't know if this is the best Old Tom in the world, but we know it's as close as we can produce to the Old Tom we used to sell 100 years ago."

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Michelle Locke tweets at https://twitter.com/Locke_Michelle

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