The Collins is a refreshing, effervescent classic cocktail that’s made with liquor (most commonly gin or bourbon), lemon juice, simple syrup, and sparkling water. This simple drink can be thought of as spiked sparkling lemonade, and it works incredibly well with literally every spirit.
You can make a vodka Collins, a rum Collins, even an absinthe, cachaca, or batavia arrack Collins – and it will be delicious! Simple ingredients and balanced ratios are the key to this cocktail’s versatility.
History of the classic Tom Collins
The original Collins cocktail was the Tom Collins, although a gentleman named Tom Collins was not the inventor of the drink. “Tom” referred to the style of gin most commonly used to make the drink, which at the time was the sweetened Old Tom gin.
The “Collins” name seems to have come from a British bartender named John Collins who claimed credit for inventing the drink. The story goes that he named the cocktail after himself, but after the drink found its way to America, it was made with Old Tom gin (rather than London dry), and became better known as a Tom Collins. Today, a John Collins often refers to the same drink made with whiskey.
The first printed recipe for the Tom Collins was in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 classic, The Bartender’s Guide. Thomas was a legendary New York City barkeep who is widely considered the father of American bartending and mixology.
Simple ingredients make it a versatile cocktail recipe template
The Collins is made with easy to source ingredients: liquor, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and bubbly water. While it’s gin that make it a traditional Tom Collins, you can substitute bourbon or rye whiskey to make it a John Collins, Irish whiskey for a Michael Collins, tequila or mezcal for a Juan Collins, the list goes on!
Virtually every spirit is delicious enveloped by citrus, a little sugar, and a splash of carbonated water. Once you’ve experimented with varying liquors, the real fun is in trying different syrups or infusions to add another dimension of flavor. More on that below!
Gin, or other spirit of choice
London dry gin is perfectly suited to the crisp, fresh flavor of lemon and the bubbly nature of the Collins. Here I’ve used the beautiful but classic-tasting Empress 1908 Gin. Empress is made with a unique blend of botanicals that includes butterfly pea flowers.
These vivid blue blossoms make the gin a deep indigo color. While Empress is made with butterfly pea flowers and roses, it’s actually not a floral-forward gin. The predominant flavors are citrus and juniper, making it an excellent gin for classic cocktails – while adding stunning color! When citrus is added to the gin, it transforms from deep blue to purple, to pink.
Whiskeys of all kinds are also a perfect match for this sparkling lemonade cocktail. Try it with a Japanese blended whiskey like Suntory Toki.
Make a Collins with vodka, white and aged rums, agave spirits like blanco tequila or smoky mezcal. Other excellent options are cognac and pisco, or go low-ABV with a dry vermouth or fino sherry Collins! For a tasty non-alcoholic option, substitute the liquor with two ounces of strong brewed, chilled tea like hibiscus, chamomile, or green tea.
Freshly squeezed citrus juice
No matter what spirit you use to make your Collins, be sure to use freshly squeezed citrus juice. The traditional choice is lemon juice, but you can also use lime juice. Limes tend to be a bit more sour than lemons, so you may want to adjust the amount of simple syrup you use. If experimenting with fresh grapefruit juice, consider adding some lemon or lime for balance.
Simple syrup is a mix of equal parts sugar and water. Combine warm (it doesn’t need to be boiling) water with sugar and stir until all of the sugar is dissolved. I typically make batches of one cup sugar and one cup water. Simple syrup will last at least two weeks in the refrigerator. Store it in a closed container, like a mason jar.
Experiment with different flavors in your Collins by making flavored simple syrups! It’s quick and easy to make raspberry syrup or other fruit or herb flavored simple syrups. Find plenty more inspiration in my guide to cocktail syrups.
Another delicious and very easy option is to make your Collins with honey syrup. This makes a great springtime cocktail. Ginger syrup is always a great choice as lemon and ginger are a perfect pair. Try my quick pineapple ginger syrup recipe.
Club soda is the traditional choice, but seltzer or sparkling mineral water work great, too. I like to make Collins style cocktails with grapefruit flavored seltzer water, Topo Chico, and Fever-Tree Club Soda.
Be sure to chill your carbonated water in advance, otherwise you’ll lose a lot of the bubbles when you pour it over the ice. You want your Collins to be as cold and fizzy as possible.
How to garnish a Collins
The traditional Tom Collins garnish is a lemon wheel and a maraschino cherry skewered on a cocktail pick. Opting for simplicity, I often just go with a lemon wheel or slice. Learn how to cut these and other simple citrus garnishes in my guide to basic cocktail garnishes.
Here I’ve added a fresh sprig of mint to enhance the cool, refreshing flavors. Much like a Gin and Tonic, you can garnish a Collins with all manner of fruit and herbs. Try rosemary in a wintery Collins or sliced strawberries in a summery sipper.
Other ways to make it your own
In addition to adding fruit or herb garnishes, you can muddle these botanicals directly into the drink. A classic Tom Collins doesn’t require shaking, but it makes for a better-tasting drink. If using a shaker, muddle your botanicals of choice with the citrus juice and simple syrup, then add the gin, or other spirit of choice.
Fill the shaker about three quarters with ice, shake until very cold, and then double strain into a Collins glass (or other tall glass) filled with ice. “Double strain” means to pour the drink through a fine mesh strainer to catch any particles from your muddled fruit or herbs. Now top the drink with plenty of ice-cold bubbly water and garnish as desired.
Flavored simple syrups and freshly muddled fruits are both great ways to enhance your Collins. Also consider infusing your spirit of choice or adding dashes of bitters. I love to make blueberry-infused gin, which is great in a late summer Tom Collins.
Ratio of ingredients
The classic Tom Collins is made with a couple ounces of gin, one ounce of lemon juice, and one ounce of simple syrup. This is topped with roughly four to six ounces of club soda. This ratio is sweet, sour, flavorful, and refreshing.
If you generally like your drinks to lean a bit more tart, scale the simple syrup back to three quarters of an ounce. If you prefer to taste your spirit a bit more, go with the alternate ratio of two ounces liquor to three quarters of an ounce lemon and three quarters of an ounce simple syrup. Top with a few ounces of club soda.
The crowd-pleasing ratio is generally 2 : 1 : 1 + soda, but craft cocktail enthusiasts often prefer 2 : 3/4 : 3/4 + soda. Try both and see which you like best!
You may also enjoy these other classic cocktails:
How to Make Your Own Collins Cocktail
- 2 oz gin, or other spirit of choice (I used Empress 1908 Gin)
- 1 oz lemon juice
- 1 oz simple syrup
- club soda, or other carbonated water
- Combine the first three ingredients in a cocktail shaker and fill it with ice.
- Shake until chilled, about 12 seconds, then strain into a Collins glass (or other tall glass) filled with ice.
- Top with chilled club soda and garnish with a lemon wheel and a cocktail cherry, or mint, or other botanicals, as desired.
Alternate Ingredient Ratio:
- 2 oz gin, or other spirit
- 3/4 oz lemon juice
- 3/4 oz simple syrup
- Club soda