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.

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 a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”?

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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.

6.
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.

7.
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.

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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."

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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.

8.
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.

9.
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."

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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.

10.
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.”