The Gimlet is my favorite cocktail.
There: I’ve said it.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s like admitting that you like fondue or iceberg lettuce; that your favorite dinner is pot roast made with Lipton Onion Soup mix.
It wasn’t always like that. When I turned 21, the Gimlet was considered daring in my crowd, a step up from the Rum-and-Cokes and blended Mai Tais my friends preferred. If it had lost some of the cachet that inspired Raymond Chandler to make it Philip Marlowe’s drink of choice in The Long Goodbye, it remained a sophisticated option for a college girl. These days? Sure, you can still get one -- even in “serious” cocktail lounges that wouldn’t be caught dead with it on the official menu -- but it’s now served with a hint of condescension alongside the lime wheel.
Scores of old-school drinks have been rediscovered in the current cocktail renaissance. Martinis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Sidecars have been rescued from the obscurity that shrouded them during the last quarter of the twentieth century and regained their stature as bar classics. Even the long-beleaguered Tiki drinks have been rehabilitated. The Gimlet might be unique in failing to make a comeback. Why all those cocktails and not my favorite? What is it about the Gimlet that keeps it from taking its rightful place beside those other stalwarts of the bar?
One word: Rose’s. From the “half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else” of Chandler’s Terry Lennox to a more modern two-to-one or even four-to-one mixture, Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice is the sine qua non of the drink: it’s what makes a Gimlet a Gimlet. So, you may ask, what’s wrong with Rose’s?
In a sense, Rose’s has suffered not for what it is, but for what it is not. Rose’s Lime Juice (Lime Cordial in the UK and Canada) is exactly what it sounds like -- a sweetened lime juice -- and therein lies the problem. Sugar and preservatives give Rose’s a shelf life several orders of magnitude longer than fresh lime juice, making it attractive to bar owners who pay more attention to their accountants than their taste buds, and to bartenders who find it easier to pour from a bottle than to squeeze fresh citrus. Thus in the dark ages of cocktail culture, Rose’s came to be regarded as a substitute for fresh lime and found its way (along with the ubiquitous sour mix) into all sorts of drinks where it did not belong. But when used as a substitute in a drink that’s designed to be made with fresh lime juice, Rose’s throws off the balance, fails to provide the acidity of just-squeezed, and turns a bracing, tart tipple into a sweet, cloying travesty. It didn’t help that competitors came out with cheaper knock-offs that contained little if any actual lime juice, and those same penurious bar owners often substituted imposters for the real thing. Thus, Rose’s gained a reputation for being artificial and inferior.
This abuse of Rose’s and its imitators maimed if not killed cocktails like the Daiquiri and the Margarita, which demand fresh lime juice. As the new generation of enthusiasts rediscovered classic drinks made with classic ingredients, fresh lime juice reclaimed its rightful place in these and other libations. It’s not surprising that some of these apostles went overboard and insisted on replacing Rose’s in the Gimlet as well. But a drink made with gin, fresh lime juice and sugar or simple syrup is not a Gimlet; it might be tasty, but it’s spiritually akin to a Daiquiri. A Gimlet requires the funkiness, the bitter undertones, of lime cordial -- not the brightness of fresh juice.
Those who would take Rose’s out of the Gimlet, those who condemn it because it’s not fresh lime juice, are misguided. They don’t blame grenadine for not being fresh pomegranate juice; why then expect lime cordial to be fresh lime juice?
Anyone with an internet connection and a search engine can, with a few keystrokes, find a thumbnail history of Rose’s Lime Cordial from one of what seems like hundreds of “official” Rose’s web sites. (The reason for the multitude of sites is that virtually every country seems to have a different distributor; in the US, for instance, Rose’s has been sold more often than a 37-year-old outfielder. It’s now owned by Snapple.) This one is typical: “In 1867, Scottish businessman Lauchlan Rose had been in the juice business for two years. That same year, two things happened: Rose patented his process of preserving lime juice without using rum and the 1867 Merchant Shipping Act was passed. Although the sailors grumbled a little about losing their rum, it wasn’t long before sweetened juice from Rose’s West Indian limes was a shipboard staple.”
Nice little story, but factual? Hardly. While it’s true that in 1867 Lauchlan Rose patented a process of preserving lime juice, and that a Merchant Shipping Act was passed, the rest of it is fanciful fabrication.
First of all, The Merchant Shipping Acts had nothing to do with the British Royal Navy. In nineteenth century Britain there were, essentially, two maritime operations: the Royal Navy, which protected the realm, and the merchant navy, which was commercial in nature. The Royal Navy began providing its sailors with lemon or lime juice (to prevent scurvy on long voyages) much earlier and more consistently than the merchant ships; the merchant ships, after all, were about profit, and antiscorbutic measures were expensive.
Furthermore, the 1867 Merchant Shipping Act was not the first of the acts, nor the last; more important, it wasn’t the first to stipulate that citrus juice had to be provided for merchant marines. What it did, among other things, was to lay out in precise terms how the lime juice was to be treated and stored before it was loaded on board. Among other criteria, “no Lime or Lemon Juice shall be so obtained or delivered from any Warehouse as aforesaid unless . . . the same contains Fifteen per Centum of proper and palatable Proof Spirits.” “Proper and palatable proof spirits” equaled brandy, or more often, rum. When Lauchlan Rose looked for a way to preserve lime juice without alcohol, his motive was not to conform to the Shipping Act. Nor was it to keep sailors sober -- in the Royal Navy, at least, sailors received a daily allotment of rum, a practice that continued well into the twentieth century.
The true story behind Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial (its original name) is more like this:
Lauchlan Rose was one of several merchants who sold lime juice -- in bulk, laced with rum -- to ships. He wasn’t the only or even the first businessman with the idea of marketing sweetened lime juice to the general population, but he was certainly the first to figure out how to preserve lime juice without alcohol (actually, to preserve it, period. The amount of alcohol in the goods destined for the ships was probably not very effective). So if his motivation wasn’t naval stores, why pursue that avenue? With the temperance movement in full swing by the late nineteenth century, it’s much more likely that he wanted a drink he could market as a healthy option for land dwellers.
The next patents he received bear this theory out. All nine of them had to do with bottling and stoppers, which indicates an eye to the popular market, not to ships and sailors at all, since juice destined for sea was supplied in safer and more economical barrels, not fragile glass. His bottles, embossed with a motif of lime leaves and blossoms, soon came to dominate the new “soft drink” market, helped by advertisements lauding the healthful properties of his cordial. Over time, the sweetened lime juice sold by L. Rose & Co. outlived all its competitors, and by the first years of the twentieth century, it was being imported into the United States.
So, enough about Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial. Where’d the Gimlet come from?
The proposed histories of the Gimlet are even less plausible than those of Rose’s Lime Juice. This is not surprising, since they rely on the putative histories of Lauchlan and his beverage, which we’ve already seen are suspect.
This condensed version of the history of the Gimlet from the web site That’s The Spirit! is the poster child for inaccuracy: “In 1867, the Merchant Shipping Act declared that, in an effort to prevent the dreaded scurvy, all ships of the British Royal Navy had to carry stores of lime juice. Sailors, to make the lime more palatable, added gin and named the mixture after the corkscrew-like device used to open the barrels of juice. In the official Royal Navy story, it was T.O. Gimlette, a naval surgeon who came aboard in 1879, who created the concoction to encourage shipmates to take the lime rations.”
Web sites are not alone in propagating this falsehood, as this mention from the San Francisco Chronicle proves: “Fans of the cocktail will be relieved to learn that the gimlet was originally the health drink of the British Royal Navy. To stave off scurvy, the Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 required ships to carry lime juice and ration it to sailors. The same year this law was passed, Lauchlin [sic] Rose patented a method of preserving lime juice without the addition of alcohol . . . Lime juice isn't terribly tasty on its own, so crafty sailors made it more palatable with the addition of gin. The cocktail name originated from the tool called a gimlet that was used to open the casks of lime juice, or from a ship's surgeon named Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette, depending on which story you believe.”
You shouldn’t believe either. This sort of speculation isn’t unique to the Gimlet, of course. Stories abound about the origin of all kinds of cocktails and cocktail names, from the Martini to the Margarita, and logic dictates that most if not all of them are false.
But I don’t care so much about those other drinks; I care about the Gimlet. Fanciful stories about lime-toting doctors or corkscrews notwithstanding, it seems certain that the Gimlet didn’t originate with sailors on board merchant or Royal ships -- which is not to say it didn’t have a link to the navies. My guess is that it was invented by the officers of those ships. As Dave Wondrich (member name Splificator), cocktail historian extraordinaire, points out, the earliest British written version of the drink calls for Plymouth gin. “The Navy had a huge base in Plymouth, and Plymouth Gin had a long history of popularity among its officers,” who drank gin, in part, to reinforce the class distinction between them and their rum-swilling men. It doesn’t seem farfetched that they might also have traveled with a store of Rose’s Lime Cordial, the popular new health drink and probably yet another mark of luxury that set them apart from the rank-and-file. Also, as he points out, in the earliest version of the drink, ice is optional. Without access to that frozen commodity, maritime officers would have made their drinks ice-free.
Picture a clutch of officers relaxing in the captain’s quarters, or more likely, at the Officer’s Club in the exotic country where their ship is docked. The first mate pulls out a bottle of light green juice in an embossed glass bottle.
“What’s that, then?” a fellow officer asks.
“It’s a new drink they’ve been selling in the fancy markets. Supposed to be good for you,” he answers. “My mother-in-law gave it to me. Says I should drink it instead of gin,” he adds, with a roll of his eyes.
When the men’s laughter subsides, the captain lifts up the bottle. “You mind?” he asks the mate, and opens it to take a sip. “Not bad,” he says. “But it would be better with gin.”
Another round of laughter, and then with a thoughtful look, the mate retrieves the bottle. He nods to the bartender. “Could we get a round of gins here, Thomas?” Pouring the contents of the bottle among the glasses, he says, “May as well make my mother-in-law happy, eh?”
The officers sip, then gulp, then call for a bottle of gin and pour another round. “I like it,” says the mate. “It’s sharp. Bores right into your head. Just like a gimlet.”
“Or the way your mother-in-law looks at you,” jokes the captain.
The mate laughs. “Here’s to the Gimlet. And to my wife’s mum’s gimlet-eyed stare.”
Whether it’s the refreshing nature of the sweet and sour drink, or just the novelty of it, the Gimlet becomes the “it” drink in officers’ clubs throughout the Empire and eventually makes its way back to England, and then across the Atlantic.
Cocktail enthusiasts are no strangers to making their own ingredients when the commercial versions are either unavailable or of dubious quality. Professional bartenders and dedicated amateurs alike make their own grenadine and orgeat, falernum and bitters. It’s not surprising, then, that recipes are cropping up for lime syrup or cordial.
The nature of these formulations depends on the motivation of those who make them. The easiest recipes simply infuse sugar syrup -- cooked or not -- with lime zest. It’s a favorite of people who truly dislike Rose’s. This is not a bad syrup, but it lacks complexity -- the bitter edge and dark tropical must of Rose’s. Since it contains no lime juice or other acid, it must be balanced with lots of lime juice. By the time you add enough juice to balance the sweetness, you may as well be drinking limeade with gin – not a bad drink, but not a Gimlet.
Other recipes call for citric and tartaric acid along with lime juice and zest to balance the sugar. The ingredients are simmered, then steeped and strained. These recipes are often put forward by and for those who want to avoid the high fructose corn syrup in American Rose’s. The implication behind these recipes seems to be that HFCS has ruined Rose’s and that a cordial made with sugar will be closer to the original Rose’s. (Interestingly, the British Rose’s Lime Cordial, which is still made with sugar, tastes one-dimensional and flat when compared with its American cousin.) Whether these resemble the original Rose’s is something we’ll never know, but it’s curious that these recipes call for citric and tartaric acid, since neither the American nor the British versions contain tartaric acid, and only the British version contains citric acid, a sour cheat probably employed to save money on the cordial’s most expensive -- and eponymous -- ingredient.
Me? I never had any desire to try my hand at making lime cordial. I like Rose’s; it’s been a steadfast occupant of my refrigerator since I had my first apartment. I drink it not only in Gimlets but with seltzer and ice in the summer. I’ve defended it against those who vilify it. I was not ashamed of my love affair with the Gimlet. I never wanted to find a replacement for Rose’s. But one day, a replacement found me.
I was at Tales of the Cocktail attending a seminar on gin (yes, I know -- way cool, and tax deductible, too). Francesco Lafranconi concocted his version of lime cordial, which he then used to build the most spectacular Gimlet I’d ever tasted. He added makrut (kaffir) limes and leaves to the typical Persian lime juice; a pinch of mango powder and salt added layers of complexity. A couple ounces of gin elicited more flavor from the ingredients as they cooked. What ended up in our glasses was almost enough to make me forget Rose’s.
My course was clear: to recreate that syrup. It took me longer than I’d expected. I had the ingredients written down, but no amounts. By the time I found a source of kaffir limes and leaves, I was a bit hazy on the details. But after a few tries (and multiple, bank-breaking shipments of kaffir limes from across the country), I had something. It wasn’t Rose’s Lime Cordial (for which I still have a huge soft spot). But I bet those guys in the Officers’ Club would have liked it anyway.
If you can find fresh kaffir limes, just cut one in half, squeeze in the juice and add both spent halves. If you can’t, a few pieces of dried rind will work. And if you can’t find the rind, the syrup is still good with just the leaves. You should be able to find amchoor in the Indian section of an international market in the spice section.
1 cup granulated white sugar
1/4 cup demerara sugar
2 ounces gin
3/4 cup water
5 kaffir lime leaves
Rind of one kaffir lime (dried or fresh)
Zest of one Persian lime
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried mango powder (amchoor)
5 ounces of lime juice, divided
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, dissolve the sugars in the gin and water. Add the leaves, rind, zest, salt, amchoor, and 2 ounces of the lime juice and bring to a simmer. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes and then remove from the heat. Add the remaining 3 ounces of lime juice and let cool. Strain through a very fine strainer or cheesecloth. Keep refrigerated; this will last at least a month.
Any Other Name (JAZ’s Gimlet)
2 ounces dry London gin
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce lime cordial (above)
Place in a shaker with lots of ice and shake hard. Strain out into a chilled cocktail glass. If you close your eyes, you may be transported to a dark, seedy LA bar, raising a glass with Philip Marlowe. Skip the ice, and you might find yourself sharing a round at some far-flung outpost of the British Empire.
Janet A. Zimmerman (aka JAZ) is a food writer and culinary instructor based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is an eGullet Society manager.