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.

Gin Gimlet
A gimlet

Photo by Thinkstock

1.
A guy walks into his regular bar, a beer-and-shot kind of bar, at half past 6 on a Saturday. He walks in wanting a beer, but the woman behind the bar is a new girl, and her unfamiliar face combines with a vague proprietary sense to steer his thirst in the direction of his regular liquor order.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

“May I please have a Plymouth gimlet on the rocks?”

“I don’t know what a gimlet is,” she says. There is a beat, and there is a bounce: “But I can find out!”

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The drink is very simple, he says, gin and lime juice: “Use Rose’s lime juice, mostly, but also a couple big squeezes of fresh lime.”

“But—chilled?”

“Yeah. It’s supposed to be shaken, technically, but you can just build it in the glass.”

Ice. Gin. Rose’s. Lime, lime.

She does a straw-taste: “Tastes good to me!”

She delivers the drink: “Thanks for being nice about it.”

How could you not be nice about it?

2.
The world’s most famous gimlet recipe debuted 60 years ago, late in 1953, with the British publication of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, a novel published in the U.S. the following March. The book’s protagonist is of course Philip Marlowe, the LA lone wolf who likes liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The recipe’s progenitor is one Terry Lennox, a stray dog to whom Marlowe takes a shine. Lennox, taking after his creator, is an American who’s had some formative experiences in England and who likes liquor rather too much. Chandler was, generally, a whiskey man; in completing the script for The Blue Dahlia, he taxed his body with an eight-day bourbon bender, which in turn tasked his soul with a monthlong hangover. But in 1952, with the first draft of The Long Goodbye already complete, the gimlet discovered the writer on an ocean liner and thus worked its way into literary history. No other drink has such a significant presence in such a great performance of American fiction.

The Long Goodbye gimlet is a totem of Marlowe’s bond with Lennox. In the third chapter, Marlowe narrates the early flourishing of something like friendship, and Lennox pines for a foreign tradition:

We sat in a corner of the bar at Victor's and drank gimlets. "They don't know how to make them here," he said. "What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow."

3.
The gimlet has had a very good year. In January, a beverage-business newsletter turning its attention to “viable menu trends” hailed its “popular revival” in a piece that supplied both a workable broad definition of the drink (“gin, vodka, light rum or silver tequila mixed with several splashes of lime juice”) and a hearty endorsement of the old standard: “The dynamics of the gimlet are unparalleled when made with a crisp, full bodied gin.”

Meanwhile, gimlet revivalists out in the field tinkered vividly. At the Bellagio, gimlets bloomed with the scent of elderflower liqueur, and in Brooklyn they burned with cinnamon and habanero. From Oakland, Calif., to Montauk, N.Y., bartenders played with basil. In Columbus, Ohio, the gimlet encountered cardamom bitters. In Boston, it took on the cool of cucumber and herbal whorl of chartreuse.

These alterations testify to the resilience of a drink that is rather easy to vary and very hard to botch. Like, for instance, the other night I prodded the barman at my regular cocktail bar to devise a gimlet variation using a particularly malty make of gin, and he, Patrick Halloran, on the first try nailed a drink of deviously smooth funk. On one of my infrequent breaks from forcing myself not to knock the thing back in three gulps, I sought to give the drink a name bespeaking its virtues and dubbed it the Gimletti Punch.

Gimletti Punch
1½ ounces Ransom Old Tom gin
½ ounce Amaro Meletti
Scant ounce Rose’s Lime Cordial
Two dashes orange bitters   
Shake well with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. (The drink gives an orangish impression, so you may be compelled to give it a green garnish, such as a mint leaf or “a thin crescent moon of lime, floated in the drink invitingly, not perched on the side like a timid swimmer looking at a cold lake.”) Serve.

One thinks it clear that Terry Lennox was excessively narrow in his definition, but also one hopes it is superfluous to caution the public against the advice of a character who enters a novel by falling drunk out of his car.

4.
Reviewing, again, the copious bibulous achievements of the British Royal Navy, one is struck, again, that its personnel managed to get up before sunset regularly enough to maintain an empire on which the sun never had to rise. It was Her Majesty's seafaring sots who first mixed gin and bottled lime juice—mother's ruin and Lauchlan Rose's antiscorbutic—in the late 19th century. By the middle of the 20th, the gimlet was the established tipple of the officer class, according to Charles H. Baker: “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.”

You will have heard that they were at one point scurvy dogs, sailors. Out at sea for months on end, they got achy, moody, lethargic. They got to bleeding from their teeth. Doctors sorted out the problem as a lack of vitamin C. Parliament, mandating “Lime or Lemon Juice and other Anti-scorbutics to be provided and kept on board certain Ships,made the sailors into limeys. And then one Mr. Rose began marketing, first to teetotalers and landlubbers, a lime juice kept fresh with sugar, and here you are now, reading my suggestion of drinking a gimlet made with equal parts navy-strength gin and Rose’s Lime Cordial and served up.

Caveat: The only thing keeping a navy-strength gimlet from being unspeakably dangerous is its lack of stealth. The fumes wafting from 114-proof gin are nasally discernible at five paces, and if you squint correctly at the bluish fumes rising from your glass, you can discern a Jolly Roger.

5.
What is a gimlet? Is bottled lime juice essential to its most exact identity? Does a drink combining, say, 2 ounces of gin with ¾ ounce of fresh lime juice and ¾ ounce simple syrup qualify as a gimlet—or is it more properly regarded as a fix or a sour or an embryonic rickey or an incipient fizz? And is that last question beside the point? Should we agree with Victoria Moore that a gimlet is the only drink that cannot be improved by replacing “the liquor-cabinet mixer with the more chi-chi option of freshly squeezed juice”?

Such questions arise from a survey of that terrain where a mixologist’s orthodoxies collide with a taxonomist’s axioms. I recently talked them over with the inventor of a fragrant something called the Whitman Gimlet—“Tanqueray gin, grapefruit, St. Germain, lime, house cardamom bitters, absinthe mist”—that is the most popular drink on his bar’s current menu. He launched into a consideration of those purists who insist that a hamburger ceases to be a hamburger once you replace its humble white-bread bun with a brioche. We came to no conclusions.

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