The Gimlet is a peculiar cocktail, with an odd history and backstory. It consists solely of Gin and lime cordial. As such it sort of fits in as a Martini variant, but this is admittedly stretching the definition quite a bit. Nevertheless, the sheer fact that it is still around more than 150 years after its creation says a great deal for both its longevity and its impact. If perhaps not its quality.
The Gimlet is one of the handful of “cocktails” that could be ordered from a British pub when I reached early drinking age. To be fair, that’s also probably its level. Being one of the only cocktails that an old geezer who usually only pulls pints can make for you. Does the job. Uses readily available and long lasting ingredients. Simple to make. But once you start to appreciate how awesome cocktails can be, you’ll go off it quickly.
The Gimlet has always struck me as a quirky kind of cocktail. There are a couple of things in particular that make it stand out:
First, unlike almost every other cocktail in the world, it is neither: an American invention; nor created by a professional bartender or connoisseur.
Second, it is the only occasion I would ever suggest the use of lime cordial over freshly squeezed lime juice.
Both of these tie into its history. To explain that we have to talk about…
Scurvy is a disease which results from a lack of Vitamin C in a person’s diet. Historically those who suffered most from this were sailors during the Age of Sail. Smaller and earlier ships stayed close to the coast, allowing for easier access to fresh food. And the later increases in speed which resulted from steam power meant journey times were drastically reduced. Only during the age of great sailing ships which took long, slow voyages across the oceans was it a real problem.
This was long before refrigeration was developed, so obtaining fresh food at sea (besides fish) was impossible. Everything was processed and made to last. Which meant a lot of sailor’s fare was severely lacking in vitamins and minerals essential to human health. Disease during long voyages was just as much a hazard as storms.
It wasn’t until 1747 that a Scottish surgeon, James Lind, determined that scurvy could be prevented by the consumption of citrus fruits. Only problem was, oranges and lemons didn’t travel well either, and nor could they be easily stored. This problem was ultimately solved by the development of refrigeration technology. But before then a stopgap method was required. A way to preserve citrus juice for the long haul. Enter…
Rose’s Lime Cordial
In 1867 another Scotsman by the name of Lauchlin Rose was awarded a patent for discovering a way to preserve fruit juice without using alcohol. I’m not entirely certain why he chose to use lime for his iconic cordial over lemons or oranges. Perhaps lime survived the process better. Or perhaps it was more cheaply and readily available from British held Caribbean islands. Either way, to give his product greater appeal he sweetened it and marketed it as “Rose’s Lime Cordial”.
The Royal (British) Navy became his best customers. A measure of his cordial was included in its sailors’ rations. And laws were passed making it mandatory for ships of the Merchant Navy to carry rations of lime juice for the crew as well. Scurvy became a thing of the past. The enlisted men tended to mix the lime cordial with their daily grog (rum and water) ration. But the officers were instead issued with gin rather than grog. So into their gin it went instead, creating the Gimlet.
This mixing of lime with alcohol is what gave the British one of their many nicknames – Limeys. This nickname could come from the Gimlet itself. Or from the simpler grog and lime mix of the common sailors. Or perhaps from the British use of lime in their quintessential anti-malarial – the gin & tonic. No-one really knows for sure.
It’s also not certain where the name itself comes from.
One version has it named after a very influential doctor of the British Navy, Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette. (1857-1943). This story is credible given his profession and commitment to improving the health of British sailors. But since the dates don’t quite match up it is likely to be apocryphal.
Another believable origin is that the drink was simply named after the tool used to make it. A gimlet is a sharp spike/corkscrew shaped tool used to pierce kegs – like those used to carry lime cordial. Since a Gimlet is also something sharp and a little twisted, this seems perfectly appropriate to me.
Either way, a Gimlet is made from gin and lime cordial and nothing else. I’ve seen recipes for Gimlet variants out there but they make little sense to me. After all, why lengthen with soda water something which is deliberately supposed to be short, sharp and powerful? And why would you ever want to use lime cordial in cocktails over freshly squeezed lime juice? In the Gimlet for historical reasons – OK, I’ll give you that. For any other reason? No. Just no.
Unless you wanted to demonstrate how NOT to make a cocktail. Use some Bacardi, some lime cordial and some granulated sugar and call it a Daiquiri. Ugh!
Making a Gimlet is simplicity itself. So simple that even “bartenders” at British pubs can’t screw it up.
It consists solely of gin and lime cordial. Usually given at a ratio of two parts gin to one part lime cordial. Though this is to taste.
If you wanted to make it fancy, stir it over ice like a Martini. Then strain it into a martini glass and garnish with a twist of lime.
Alternatively you could just stick it in a shorter glass with a little ice, give it half a stir and call it a night. It’s not exactly a fussy drink to make.