A Cocktail Classic – The Gimlet
A classic cocktail that I keep returning to is the gimlet. It is a cooling bracer that runs a tad sweet, but delivers a wonderful punch with a pleasing, tangy, refreshing bite.
Novelist Raymond Chandler famously offered his preferred recipe in the dialogue between Terry Lennox and detective Philip Marlowe in his 1953 novel, The Long Goodbye. As the Lennox character makes clear, “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.”
I take exception to that last line, and the 1:1 ratio between gin and Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial is almost sickeningly sweet to my tastes, the tone and basic idea are sound. When made right, the gimlet is simple, straightforward, pungent, and remarkably satisfying.
Its origins are unclear, like so many other cocktails, but the first recorded mention of the gimlet that I am aware of is from the 1922 edition of Harry MacElhone’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, a famous European bartender of the period. In it, MacElhone gives the same 1:1 recipe as Chandler puts in his novel. The influential Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930, offers the same recipe as well. It is almost certain, however, that the drink had been around for decades before it was finally printed in MacElhone’s book.
Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial, the other crucial ingredient, is no spring chicken either. Scotsman Lachlan Rose of Leith, Scotland, patented his method of preserving citrus juice without alcohol in 1867. Rose’s lime juice cordial product caught the attention of the British government and a shidduch was made, so to speak. The British Royal Navy, after all, had mandated the use of lime juice rations on British naval ships to fight scurvy (a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency). Originally, the antiscorbutic of the British Royal Navy was lemon juice purchased from the Mediterranean, but the English lime growers in the West Indies lobbied strenuously to make the substitution. This is how Brits eventually became known as “limeys.” Rather than use fresh limes, Rose’s Lime Cordial found its biggest early customer.
Medical officer Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Gimlette is often credited with mixing the daily lime juice ration with gin, thereby inventing the drink and lending it his name. This is a highly unlikely account, however, as Gimlette was only around ten years old when Rose’s was first ordered aboard all Navy ships.
Regardless of its history, the gimlet is an exception to the general rule that fresh fruit juice must always be used for the cocktail to taste good. Indeed, fresh lime juice instead of lime juice cordial would make it a gin rickey, rather than a gimlet—but the sweetness is definitely part of its defining characteristics.
As Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe notes in the novel: “The bartender set the drink in front of me. With the lime juice it has a sort of pale greenish yellowish misty look. I tasted it. It was both sweet and sharp at the same time.” Exactly so.