The Gimlet cocktail sails upon a sea of lies with sails fueled by lazy journalism.
When I started tending bar there was a lot of talk about squeezing fresh lime juice. As in, should we? Should we, bartenders, bother squeezing fresh lime juice? I remember watching the conversation develop, that squeezing lemon and lime fresh are important but canned orange and grapefruit are fine. The latter half of that reasoning I still believe has merit, an example being places like Canada where grapefruits taste like fresh squeezed gasoline-citrus-spite. After juicing grapefruit and oranges became de rigueur, canned pineapple was, and often still is, accepted though this sweetened yellow goo robs the fruit's essence of all subtlety and acidity. All of this to say, when we, bartenders, juiced fresh, everyone agreed it was better. Everyone agreed it was better until we made fresh squeezed lime Gimlets.
I wouldn’t say that Robert Hess was mad, but I saw him “greatly impassioned” while stating that the the Gimlet calls for lime cordial, and not lime juice and sugar. He said, and with this I completely agree, if one changes or replaces an ingredient, it is a new drink. That is to say, a Negroni with Cynar instead of Campari is not a Negroni and I will send “your interpretation” on it, back to the dump sink. And the Gimlet is indeed a “branded cocktail.” But before continuing a meandering trail ride of a story that may someday get to the oasis of “a point,” let me offer first the perfunctory Wikipedia legends that we tell ourselves about the Gimlet cocktail. We tell ourselves that British Royal Navy Surgeon Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Gimelette first added lime cordial to gin (or rum, depending whose selective memory is working) to prevent scurvy in the British Navy. Great story, let’s tell everyone that while we hand them a drink across the bar. Unfortunately, like all legends, it’s an over simplification of numerous other more likely factors. Doubly unfortunate is that the legend isn’t a fable, if it were, the Admiral could be an otter in charge of a bunch of scurvy-prone seals.
The premise of this piece was not to draw an otter in a naval uniform but it became all that mattered.
Gimelette was born in 1857, just 10 years before it was law for all British ships, merchant and naval, to provide, essentially daiquiris (lime, sugar, rum and water) to all crew every day. This is another point in which it would be useful for this to be a fable, as 10 year old boys rarely achieve the rank of admiral however a 10 year old otter is quite mature. The Gimlet was already a well known cocktail at the time of Gimelette’s death but he seemingly never claimed a connection to it. Some people point to Laughlin Rose’s 1867 patent of Rose’s Lime Cordial, a method to preserve, without alcohol, the vitamin C in a lime, as the reason for the Gimlet’s advent. However, British Naval ships had already long required lime or lemon juice (lemon has more vitamin C) as part of daily tots. You’ll also read that Scottish physician James Lind (1716-1794) discovered that vitamin C cured scurvy. By now, hopefully you have noticed a pattern. Vitamin C wasn’t discovered until the 1930’s by Hungarian Albert Szent-Györgyi, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for doing so in 1937. James Lind was a pioneer in understanding that preventative medicine, nutrition and hygiene were the 3 most life saving factors for soldiers in his day. Were he alive today, he’d probably have dreadlocks and own a kombucha brand. While Lind observed that lime juice was an antiscorbutic, he did not know why, nor would his findings be validated in his lifetime. So yeah, Admiral Gimelette invented the Gimlet because he knew things, that is clearly, all you need to know on the subject.
This is very much like Mark Twain’s saying that “A lie can get around the world before the truth can get his boots on.” In fact, it’s literally like that because that isn’t actually a Mark Twain quote.
That gordian knot* of information aside, the Gimlet cocktail was first in print in 1922 in Harry MacElhone’s ABC’s of Mixing Cocktails. And what can certainly be said of the Gimlet is that it is a "branded cocktail." Like the Galliano float on a Harvey Wallbanger, the Campari third in a Negroni or Bacardi base in the Bacardi cocktail, the original Gimlet called for quite specific brands: 50% Plymouth Gin, 50% Rose’s Lime Cordial, stirred. Depending on how passionate you feel about branded cocktails, and assuming you could make a Negroni with 100 other red aperitifs, you must at least recognize that the Gimlet calls for lime cordial and not lime juice. Any Jerry Thomas quoting bartender would say that grapefruit juice is not a substitute for grapefruit liqueur. This leaves most Gimlet devotees with an unfortunate reliance on a bottle of artificially colored, high fructose corn syrup and lime concentrate. Rose’s lime might not be your first choice for a craft cocktail but in buying a bottle and using it as directed (refrigerating it and not leaving it out for a couple years) I must report that it is much better than I remember. It has a good consistency, aroma, acidity (aroma and acidity are key in judging liqueurs) and most importantly, a gentle punctuation of bitterness. Science made Rose’s Lime Cordial good. But nature can make cordials better.
Rose’s makes me think of the growth in coffee pod culture. Nespresso or Keuring are a godsend in my hotel room, adequate after dinner, but unacceptable in a city center that has a ratio of 1 barista to every 3 citizens. Science can get a foodstuff to about a 70% effectiveness, but will generally lack the art to cross the chasm of adequacy to achieve greatness. The art of greatness is where my buddy Neil Robertson comes in. Back when I actually was a bartender, he and I worked together at MistralKitchen and I learned many a chefly techniques from him and the rest of the kitchen crew. We actually did a seminar about this: A Cook Walks into a Bar. Each time I cook, I hear William Belickis saying “nothing on your cutting board that isn’t being cut.” I take a lot from chefs. Anyway, Neil still teaches me about food. On a recent pastry jag at Crumble + Flake, he gave me a bottle of his house lime cordial. Unsurprisingly, it was amazing. It was a recipe that he got from a Serious Eats article by Stella Parks and I can certainly say that it applies to limes as well as meyer lemons. To summarize her recipe in brief: pour sugar over your juiced citrus and the sugar will pull all of the juice out of the rinds and pool into a bowl of cordial. This easy method can also allow for very simple variations on infusing syrups. For example, outside of meyer lemon season, I might toss a little oregano in with the lemons to herb it up a bit.
What is perhaps the most striking thing about this technique is how it addresses the chef’s ethos regarding waste—as in, don’t. The garbage, or hopefully the compost bins of a craft cocktail bar is like 50% citrus by weight. This recipe offers a way to get all of your money's worth out of the volatile priced limes by technique, time and cheap sugar. Furthermore, this recipe for lime cordial offers a new lease on cocktails that are forgotten due to reliance on “under-prized ingredients” like lime cordial. By which I mean, the Gimlet is a key prohibition-era-speakeasy-please-write-about-this-bar-in-Eater style cocktail, but I assure you that 10 out of 10 of this style of bar cannot produce you the true Gimlet. You will have a better chance getting a real Gimlet at a bar with a flat screen TV the size of a drive in, that is playing ESPN Ocho’s coverage of Luxembourg Olympic hopeful ping pong finals. “CAN YOU PUT SOME SPORTS ON SO I DON’T HAVE TO INTERACT WITH OTHER PEOPLE” robotically blurted the man to the bartender. Oof, I’m back from that rant. So, yes, this lime cordial recipe allows for the Gimlet drinker to regain dignity in ingredients and pay nothing for the privilege of having the finer things.
However, were you a home mixologist, that would like to pay for the privilege, there are many other companies, with commercial kitchens, that are looking to help you up your lime cordial quality. Here are a few of them.
I would be remiss to not address Plymouth Gin in the original Gimlet cocktail. I love Plymouth Gin. I'll even take it a step further and say if you don't like it, you are dumb, have an ugly face and your mouth doesn't work. I don't think it's essential for making a Gimlet but I would strongly encourage you to try Plymouth if you haven't had it and to choose a high-proof, or even navy strength gin when making naval cocktails. Remember, if you can spill it on gunpowder and it still ignites, then it's good enough for sailors.
*gordian knot is a fancy way to say “clusterfuck”