Words by: Simon Difford
Classically the Gimlet is a simple 50-50 mix of gin and lime cordial but the rise in vodka's popularity during the 1990s and early noughties saw vodka frequently used in place of gin to make a Gimlet. As gin has recently regained ground on vodka so it has reclaimed its rightful place in the Gimlet. Modern, drier palates have also caused the proportion of lime cordial used in a Gimlet to dwindle.
The story behind the Gimlet
In 1747, James Lind, a Scottish surgeon, discovered that consumption of citrus fruits helped prevent scurvy, one of the most common illnesses on board ship. We now understand that scurvy is caused by a Vitamin C deficiency and that it is the vitamins in citrus fruit which help ward off the condition. In 1867, the Merchant Shipping Act made it mandatory for all British ships to carry rations of lime juice for the crew.
Lauchlin Rose, the owner of a shipyard in Leith, Scotland, had been working to solve the problem of how to keep citrus juice fresh for months on board ship. In 1867 he patented a process for preserving fruit juice without alcohol. To give his product wider appeal he sweetened the mixture, packaged it in an attractive bottle and named it 'Rose's Lime Cordial'.
Once the benefits of drinking lime juice became more broadly known, British sailors consumed so much of the stuff, often mixed with their daily ration of rum and water ('grog'), that they became affectionately known as 'Limeys'. While the ratings drunk rum, their officers drink gin so naturally mixed Rose's lime cordial with gin to make Gimlets. Hence, the creation of the Gimlet is the result of circumstance rather than clever mixing of ingredients, and that's the way it tastes if you try an un-chilled (they had no ice) 50-50 Gimlet. However, stirred over ice, mixed to more balanced proportions and the result is divine. Gin and lime just work, that's why it's the garnish of choice for G&Ts.
As for the name, a 'gimlet' was a small tool used to tap the barrels of spirits which were carried on British Navy ships: this could be the origin of the drink's name. Another story cites a naval doctor, Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette (1857-1943), who is said to have mixed gin with lime 'to help the medicine go down'. Although credible, it is not substantiated in his obituary in The Times, 6 October 1943, nor his entry in Who Was Who 1941-1950, and we guess pretty much every doctor in the Navy spurted a similar mantra at the time.
Our preferred Gimlet recipe is by Charles Schumann.
Basil Gimlet recipe
Celery Gimlet recipe by Naren Young.
Creole Gimlet recipe by Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro.
Limey Gimlet recipe by Yours Truly.
Richmond Gimlet recipe by Jeffrey Morgenthaler.
Vodka Gimlet recipe
Other Gimlet recipes & references
Harry Craddock 1930
In his 1930 'The Savoy Cocktail Book', Harry Craddock lists both a 'Gimlet Cocktail and a 'Gimblet Cocktail as follows:
¼ Lime Juice, ¾ Dry gin,
Shake well and strain into medium size glass ; fill up with soda water.
½ Burrough's Plymouth Gin, ½ Roses Lime Cordial,
Stir, and serve in same glass. Can be iced if desired"
Charles H. Baker 1939
In his 1939 'The Gentleman's Companion - Vol. II Exotic Drinking Book', Charles H. Baker say of a drink he called "The Far Eastern Gimlet", "Why on earth this stroke of genius stands unheralded and unsung in this fair and allegedly free land of ours shall, to us, always be a mystery like who it is that designs expensive radio cabinets, why all cinema stars long to ruin themselves playing highbrow roles, and why good prize fighters want to write fiction. Throughout the whole swing of the Far East, starting with Bombay - down the Malabar Coast to Colombo; to Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, the Gimlet is just as well-known as our Martini here.
"The main thing in its flavour is that, unlike most cocktails, it is not 'warming' in hot weather, and in fact is a good cooler. It is simple, without fancy fizzings, and is one to experiment with until the precise amount of lime cordial is found, to taste. This last is a British invention based on a similar essence to Rose's Lime Juice - which comes in the slender decorative bottle we see back of most good soda fountains - but is not quite so pungent. Soda fountain lime syrup also would do in a pinch. We have approximated it with fine results by diluting it with equal amounts of water.
Take a big saucer champagne glass, put 1 jigger either of dry or old Tom gin, 1 tsp gomme syrup or sugar, 1⁄2 tsp - to taste - of lime syrup or lime cordial. Fill up with chilled plain water, add 1 ice cube and thin slice of big green lime. Don't use soda water, please.
David A. Embury 1948
In the "Roll Your Own" section (page 131) of his seminal 1948 'Fine Art of Mixing Drinks', David A. Embury comments, "the Gimlet is a Gin Rickey and is made with sugar, lime juice, gin, and carbonated water. It is served in a Delmonico or Sour glass. It is also served as a cocktail, omitting the carbonated water.
Raymond Chandler 1953
In his 1953 novel 'The Long Goodbye', Raymond Chandler wrote, "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. The woman in black watched me. Then she lifted her own glass towards me. We both drank. Then I knew hers was the same drink."