The Gimlet: A history of gin and Rose’s, from the British navy to Raymond Chandler.

Troy Patterson Considers the Gimlet, the Most Unscrewupable of Cocktails

Troy Patterson Considers the Gimlet, the Most Unscrewupable of Cocktails

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Dec. 5 2013 11:50 AM

The Gimlet Eye

Considering the most unscrewupable of cocktails.

(Continued from Page 1)

The Rose’s that an Anglophile knows to seek is a distinct product from the Rose’s on the shelf at an American’s local grocery, glowing as mean as vitriol. The latter calls itself Rose’s West India Sweetened Lime Juice—a compound of water, high fructose corn syrup, concentrated lime juice, sodium metabisulfite, natural flavors, and Blue 1, according to a label further instructing that its proper use involves pouring 1 ounce of itself and 1½ ounces of gin, vodka, or rum into a shaker, adding 1 cup of ice, shaking, and dispensing the consequences into 1 glass.

The drink made according to this formula has a crude sizzle, and it lacks the light florality and nice citric bite provided by the U.K.’s sugar-sweetened Rose’s (or any other proper lime cordial). The gimlet you drink in a random American airport bar exists in relationship to a proper gimlet as a Pizza Hut product does to a proper pizza: There are failures of subtlety aplenty, and you can taste the concessions made to mass taste—and yet the Pizza Hut pie, like the bastardized, plasticized Rose’s we Americans have come to know, is a culinary entry in its own right, tasty on its own terms. This is why the gimlet made with it is an ideal cocktail to order when you find yourself in a bar that is not a cocktail bar. It's a shelf-stable situation, more or less unscrewupable, a reliable standby, true to itself wherever it’s tried.

Marlowe picks up the habit of getting to know Lennox over gimlets, usually at the same spot, usually around 5 p.m., with the “usual light scattering of compulsive drinkers getting tuned up at the bar on the stools.” One day they go to drink at 4, and it ends badly, with Lennox delivering a glass-smashing tirade about his wife’s sluttishness and Marlowe stalking off perturbed: "You talk too damn much … and it's too damn much about you. See you later." The next time he sees Lennox, it’s a month later and 5 a.m. at the shamus’s front door. Lennox has a gun in his hand and a dead wife at home. "I know you didn't kill her,” Marlowe says. Which is the knowledge that allows him in good conscience to drive the widower to Mexico.


Lennox’s corpse turns up days later, accompanied by what the forces of power call a confession. Then, after a few quiet nights, Marlowe opens his mailbox to collect a further final message from the dead man, a “portrait of Madison” attached to a suicide note:

[W]hen all you have left is the gun in your pocket, when you are cornered in a dirty little hotel in a strange country, and have only one way out—believe me, pal, there is nothing elevating or dramatic about it. It is just plain nasty and sordid and gray and grim.
So forget it and me. But first drink a gimlet for me at Victor's.

Marlowe gets around to honoring that last wish in Chapter 22. Double, no bitters. What is more, the bartender, having overheard earlier conversations, has special-ordered Rose’s. "With the lime juice it has a sort of pale greenish yellowish misty look,” Marlowe says. “I tasted it. It was both sweet and sharp at the same time."

In 1985, The Armchair Detective, a crime-fiction journal, published a critical essay by James O. Tate titled “The Longest Goodbye: Raymond Chandler and the Poetry of Alcohol.” The piece supposed that “the ‘sweet and sharp’ Englishness of the gimlet represents Chandler's powerfully ambivalent feelings about his return to England in 1952 as well as his ambivalence ... about his own identity as an American of English education.” Sure, but also Marlowe and Chandler are just reporting the facts. The gimlet is sharp, and it is sweet, and while we’re at it, let’s observe that Marlowe, in order to be in the mood to catch that memorial drink, needs to feel for dead Lennox a “puckering bitterness.” The gimlet—preservative in spirit, with perhaps a retrospective pang in its tang—is an inherently sentimental beverage.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Tate is among the many critics who read The Long Goodbye as a homage to The Great Gatsby, and that the skin of a lime makes a visual rhyme with the light on Daisy’s dock.

The word gimlet, pressed into metaphor in the fascinating epithet “gimlet-eyed,” originally referred to a screw-tipped tool for hand-drilling holes. (Boring.) It seems more likely that the name of the drink derives from the tool (used on ships to open containers of, say, lime juice) than from the surname of Sir Thomas Gimlette, a naval surgeon. I’m quite sure that the beverage and the tool share a sort of synecdochical aura. One thinks of achieving ingenious twists of insight under the influence of two gimlets, or in the aftermath of nine understanding what it is like to have an oxidized iron hook corkscrewing counterclockwise into one’s frontal lobe.

The gimlet was my first drink. I don't mean that it was the first mixed drink that ever passed my lips. I mean that it was the first drink that was my regular drink. I’m applying the first-person possessive in somewhat the same spirit as those couples who coo, "They’re playing our song."

It was reading that corrupted me—not Chandler, but Hemingway, whose best story starts:

It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.
"Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?" Macomber asked.
"I’ll have a gimlet," Robert Wilson told him.
“I’ll have a gimlet too. I need something," Macomber’s wife said.
"I suppose it’s the thing to do," Macomber agreed.

Hemingway does not describe the drink, doesn’t say that it is cold and good and warms you all the way through the body to the spirit. Nothing in the text indicates the personality of the drink, other than the glint of its name. But what did I know or care? I wasn’t old enough to drink when I first drank a gimlet. I wasn’t, come to think of it, old enough to be remotely interested in drinking when first I read the story. I suppose I simply supposed that drinking them was the thing to do.

In college there were vodka gimlets at formal dances. Just after college, during my distinguished tenure as a barista, there were gin gimlets in my first apartment. At the end of every shift, I biked home, exchanged my espresso-stained work shirt for something less comfortable, and put together two parts Tanqueray with one part Rose’s to produce my one material luxury. After that, just after I’d moved to New York, I first met the friend whom fate had already selected as both my roommate and my colleague at my first real job. The backdrop was a cocktail party, and we held gimlets as props, and it was one of those scenes where you lock eyes and vibrate toward another human for half a second and think, Oh, hello! This will be a hoot. Just now I realized, thinking of that friend, that I never made a gimlet in our apartment—that, in fact, I stopped making gimlets at home at precisely the same time I stopped making coffee for money.

The Lennox Law of Gimlet Mixing—half gin, half Rose's, beats martinis hollow—is so thoroughly famous as to have developed a life independent of the novel. The next time someone quotes it at you, be sure to reply with Marlowe’s rejoinder: "I was never fussy about drinks.”