It’s a fixture in the pantheon of “Classic Drinks”, one of those cocktails no bartender in the world has to check the recipe for when it’s ordered: the Gimlet. After all, it only has a few ingredients and it’s been at home in most cocktail menus forever. But is the Gimlet still relevant today? Let’s find out.
In today’s Golden Age when bartenders cook up their own syrup, practically give every gin a “physical exam” before adding it to the bar shelf, add fresh ingredients with French sous-vide cooking methods, ferment juices just for fun and refine distillates with cold dripping, the persistent tenacity of the Gimlet’s staying power is singularly enigmatic. It can even seem archaic and out of place against the backdrop of the quest for quality that thankfully prevails in so many of today’s bars, where every ingredient undergoes the strictest scrutiny before it’s used.
Ingredients and integrity
In most cases, Gimlets are made with a good gin that’s too often coupled then with the cheapest, longest-lasting mass produced “juice-like” product available with an eye to low costs, not high quality. But if using top quality products behind the bar applies as a general principle, then the same principle has to apply all the more for simple two-part drinks, the tour de force of every bar. After all, leaving optional bitters and zests aside for the moment, who would dare to make a Martini with inferior vermouth?
Does a good bar even need to fill an order for a Gimlet these days? Well, if you’re going to call it a “bar”, then surely it has to be capable of serving up a bar classic like the Gimlet. So what to do? The key is in the cordial, in the most British sense of the word!
Tell me where you’re from: origins
Let’s go back in time to 1867, when a patent application was registered in Scotland for the first “Lime Cordial” by Lauchlin Rose as Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial. This sugar-preserved lime juice enabled the British Navy to carry lime juice on board for long sea journeys for the first time ever. Since the end of the 18th century seafarers had been carrying citrus juices on board to prevent scurvy (the reason why initially British sailors, and over time the English in general, came to be known as Limeys). But until the introduction of Rose’s cordial, the juices had been preserved by adding rum.
The most likely namesake for the Gimlet is Royal Navy Deputy Inspector-General Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette, who initially joined the navy in October of 1879. Whether it was actually his idea to mix gin and Lime Cordial remains a mystery, but it can be argued with a high degree of certainty that the first Gimlets were drunk on board British ships in the late 19th century. In any case, Sir Thomas is credited as the originator of the drink on the Royal Navy website.
Incidentally, the emergence of the Gimlet bears interesting similarities to the story of the Gin & Tonic, another product of Britain’s colonial period. Tonic water was consumed in the colonies for the quinine it contains to prevent malaria. At some point members of Britain’s East India Company began mixing it with gin. As such, both drinks grew out of a medical necessity combined with a love of gin.
In the interest of telling as much of the whole story as possible, it should be noted that the word gimlet is also the English word for a small handheld wood drill. Subsequently, one might from time to time hear that the cocktail owes its name to how this tool was used by sailors to drill holes in the kegs containing the citrus juices on the ships. But up against the Gimlette story, this seems relatively unlikely.
A Gimlet is a Gimlet is a Gimlet? Hardly!
We’ve established that the story of the Gimlet begins in the 19th century. But it first made its way into bar recipe books and drink menus in the 1920s. And this is where the problems begin with questions about the recipe, the preparation and the right glass. The Gimlet is first documented in Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails by Harry McElhone in 1919 with the recipe:
2/3 Gin, 1/3 lime juice cordial, shake & strain. [no glass specification]
A few years later in 1927, McElhone alters the recipe himself in his book Barflies & Cocktails:
½ Coates’ Plymouth Gin*, ½ Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial, stir, and serve in same glass. Can be iced if desired. A very popular beverage in the Navy.
There are still no instructions regarding the glass, but here he makes changes to the preparation and the amounts of each ingredient, and opens up the option of adding ice.
The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock, published in 1930, contains virtually the same recipe from Barflies & Cocktails, only differing in its specification of Burrough’s Plymouth Gin (a 19th century gin made by Beefeater which would have actually no longer been available in Craddock’s time).
But the interesting tidbit about this book is the drink found directly above the Gimlet known as the Gimblet. While the Gimblet’s ingredient quantities are different again, it shares more than just a passing resemblance to its older cousin and is apparently served without ice:
¼ Lime Juice, ¾ Dry Gin, shake well and strain into medium size glass; fill up with soda water
As we follow the story further, we come across Charles Henry Baker, Jr. who notes in his 1939 book Jigger Beaker & Glass that the Gimlet is as widely known from Bombay to Hong Kong as the Martini Cocktail is in Europe. Perhaps due to its reputation in the Orient, he calls it the Far Eastern Gimlet. His recipe closely resembles the previously mentioned Gimblet, but is a dryer version that also stipulates uncarbonated water:
1 Jigger dry or Old Tom Gin, 1 tsp gomme syrup or sugar, ½ – to taste – of lime syrup or lime cordial. Fill up with plain chilled water, add 1 ice cube and thin slice of big green lime. Don’t use soda water, please.
As the story enters the 21st century, we find Gary “Gaz” Regan, known far and wide for his dry palate, recommending the following version in his 2009 book The Bartender’s Gin Compendium:
75 ml Gin, 20 ml lime juice cordial, such as Rose’s, 1 lime wedge, as garnish, stir over ice and strain into an ice-filled old-Fashioned glass, add the garnish.
As we can see, there’s no carved-in-stone Gimlet recipe. Depending on which book you consult you’ll find the entire gamut stretching from equal measures of each ingredient to Gimlets as-dry-as-a-bone, on the rocks or straight up, shaken or stirred.
To shed some light on the matter, it sometimes pays to ask which category a particular cocktail actually belongs to. But that’s not so easy with the Gimlet. The way I see it, the Gimlet is all too frequently misinterpreted as a Sour, or more to the point, a Sour-based drink. It reminds me a little of the phenomenon in the Nineties when any drink in a martini glass was suddenly called a Martini. It seems to me that too many new creations that aren’t actually Gimlets end up being called “Gimlet” anyway. One such example is the Richmond Gimlet by Jeffrey Morgenthaler from Oregon, a great drink in its own right, but in my opinion far more a Smash than a Gimlet.
The second example of a mistaken-identity Gimlet is the concoction from the outstanding bartender Naren Young that was featured a while back on MIXOLOGY ONLINE as the Spiced Rhubarb Gimlet; a magnificent drink…but not a Gimlet.
Trying to squeeze the Gimlet into other categories like the Rickey, Collins, Fizz or Fix is also pointless, even when some books insist on stretching them with water. In his book The Joy of Mixology, Gaz Regan has a category called Orphans for drinks that defy classification. This feels right to me, even if it’s born out of desperation. A Gimlet is nothing but a Gimlet, full stop!
Lime Cordial: Terra Incognita?
So what’s next? Let’s turn to Lime Cordial for a minute. With all the available gin options to choose from and experiment with for Gimlet flavor variations, at first glance it seems like the “other” ingredient is nailed down tight. At least I don’t know of any bar that carries different varieties of Lime Cordial. And why would they? If we’re honest, how many truly relevant drinks are made with Lime Cordial (aside from a few Tiki drinks like the Suffering Bastard, which is certainly not the top seller in every bar)? And how many Gimlets do you actually serve in a month?
What is a “Lime Cordial” anyway? In terms of sweetness, a Lime Cordial is more like a non-alcoholic liqueur than a type of syrup, using a small amount of sugar in comparison. And while it’s not a sweet-and-sour mix as such, Lime Cordial is made from fresh lime juice and sugar. Most bars with any kind of reputation to uphold make their own Lime Cordial. It does take at least a modicum of effort to make a truly convincing looking and tasting Lime Cordial, but it’s still relatively easy to do without the help of any expensive appliances.
The result leaves mass-produced Lime Cordials light years behind and elevates a Gimlet to the quality level worthy of its good name. For my money, the two keys to making a great Lime Cordial are “oleo saccharum” and “clarified” juice.
Oleo saccharum is used above all as the secret weapon in making punches. By adding granulated sugar to lemon peels, the oils bond with the sugar and are drawn out an unusually high level, giving the sugar an incomparable flavor.
In addition to how appealing it looks, the primary advantage of clarified juice is that it has less acid than conventional fresh lime juice. While this is clearly not something you want in every drink, clarified juice is ideal for Gimlets. You’ll find the precise recipe for a homemade Lime Cordial at the end of this article.
A distinct profile
In my opinion a Gimlet is a dry drink, meaning that in general less Lime Cordial in the mix is “more”, but there’s room for individual preferences on that point. However, a Gimlet has to be made with gin. It doesn’t work at all with tequila, only in the rarest of cases with light rums and with vodka it’s like a boring blind date: A Gimlet needs gin, period.
A good Gimlet depends on the balance between juniper and fresh citrus notes. The flavor of the lime zests is more important than the acidity of the lime and it should be easy to detect. Only a touch of sweetness should go in for support. The ideal Gimlet is tart, masculine and a little bitter, an English military drink served ice-cold and straight up in a coupette. Visually, it most closely resembles a Martini and should be clear as glass. It’s fine to use a gin under 40% that’s not overly floral. In fact, stylistically a Plymouth Gin that is elegant and comparably smooth works best. A certain degree of well-proportioned melted water resulting from stirring adds a little more openness and a silky touch, but the flavor of the cordial should still be clearly detectable.
As such, the Gimlet is absolutely a drink for today that still remains popular. Now’s the time for good cordial and great Gimlets, even without the threat of scurvy or sea sickness!
50 ml of juniper-heavy London Dry Gin
10-20 ml of Lime Cordial (ideally homemade)
Glass: Martini glass or a small coupette
Preparation: Add both ingredients to a mixing glass and stir thoroughly for around 30 seconds in very cold ice cubes, then strain into a pre-cooled glass.
Homemade Lime Cordial
First make oleo saccharum by placing the zests of 4 limes into 250 grams of granulated sugar at room temperature for around 24 hours. The dry sugar absorbs large amounts of the oils from the peels. Then remove the zests from the resulting sugared oil.
Use a precision scale to weigh 125 grams of filtered water and 7.5 grams of agar-agar. Then heat both together in a pot, stirring constantly with a whisk until the agar-agar has dissolved completely. Then take 250g of fresh pressed and strained lime juice and squirt it in a thin stream into the mix while stirring with the whisk.
When this is done, pour the mixture into a metal bowl and place the bowl into an ice-cooled pool of water, stirring vigorously with the whisk the whole time to cool the mix. A thick mass with roughly the consistency of creamed cheese should emerge after two minutes or so. Place the thick mass into a straining cloth and carefully squeeze it out over a clean container.
This produces around 250 grams of clarified juice.
Stir together with 150 grams of the oleo saccharum over low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Pour into a sterilized bottle and store in the refrigerator. The Lime Cordial will keep for at least three to four weeks.
Translation by J.J. Collier.
Bildquelle: Picture via Shutterstock.