Gimlet Cocktail: the libertarian’s delight

It seems that the better known a cocktail is, the more it resists the constricts of a recipe—as Jimmy Durante used to say, “everybody wants to get into the act.” A few of the most famous don’t even adhere to a canonical list of ingredients—for example, the Martini, which Camper English recently described as “a set of variables and constants,” rather than a single drink.

The Gimlet carries this free-for-all to an extreme.

As near as I can tell, the only point of general agreement about the Gimlet Cocktail is that it contains lime. The source of the lime, the proportions, the sweetener, the presence (or lack) of soda, the use of ice, the type of glass, the garnish, even the base spirit—in fact, all other attributes of the drink—are only pencilled in as opportunities for substitution. It seems that if you put three Gimlet drinkers at one bar, you’ll have to serve three different Gimlets.

In the end, “Gimlet” is not a recipe; it is an abstraction, and a vehicle for self-expression.

The original Gimlet was a simple combination of gin and Rose’s Lime Juice. There seem to be no records of its first making, but David Wondrich makes a convincing circumstantial case that it was a creation of the British Navy at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century. Harry McElhone first published the recipe under the “Gimlet” name, in his 1922 ABC of Mixing Cocktails, and again in Barflies and Cocktails (1927). His recipe called for equal parts gin and Rose’s—undrinkable by modern standards, but Wondrich reminds us the original would have been made with navy-strength gin, somewhere around 114 proof, and would have been drunk warm. A large proportion of Rose’s doesn’t look so bad under those conditions. (I don’t plan to find out—warm gin, indeed! This blog isn’t called Cold Glass for nothing…)

Whatever the proportions, Rose’s Lime draws the main fault line among Gimlet drinkers; either you love it, or you hate it.

A large contingent of Gimlet drinkers revile Rose’s as an inferior, preserved lime juice,  industrial wrong-headedness full of chem lab flavoring and corn syrup sweeteners. These anti-Rosers prefer fresh lime juice and sugar in a gin sour-style Gimlet.

Others aren’t prepared to write off Rose’s so lightly. In addition to lime juice and sugar, Rose’s presents additional flavors that would be right at home in tropical or tiki recipes—pineapple and coconut are the ones I can taste most easily. It has a  mystery funkiness, a Gimlet analog of the “hogo” that many consider the main attraction in some Jamaican rums. For those who pursue this flavor, Rose’s is much more than an attempt at lime juice simulation, and they like the idea of Gimlets made with something like the original flavors.

But as long as we’re slicing and dicing the Gimlet demographics, we may as well look beyond the lime and Rose’s schism.

There are other subgroups that add to Gimlet entropy. Many of the remaining controversies sound like they came out of a Martini argument—gin or vodka; shaken or stirred; up or rocks; garnish or not.

Ah, the chaos that is Gimlet!

The Gimlet Cocktail, photo Copyright © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Gimlet Cocktail

I subscribe to the Rose’s School of Gimletry. I quite surprise myself with that revelation, since I’m a knee-jerk fresh juice person, but Rose’s just seems to make a more interesting, flavorful cocktail.

The Gimlet Cocktail

  • 2 oz Gin (Plymouth or Bombay Dry)
  • ½ oz Rose’s Lime Juice
  • ⅛ oz (one bar spoon) simple syrup (optional, to taste)

Stir with ice until well chilled; strained into a chilled cocktail glass, no garnish.

The lime juice-based version is just too simple for my taste, and too bland—the drink just lacks character, flavorwise. The Rose’s version is more complex, and more interesting, and if I’m drinking Gimlets, that’s the version I want. And yet, that funkiness is only welcome for awhile, and then it’s time to go on to the next thing.

And so, with all its degrees of freedom and opportunities to let every Gimleteer take ownership of its design, it comes down to the question of whether the Gimlet can stand up to its competition.

Suppose we wanted to dress it up a little, to put a little more “there” there. Since we’re working with such a hand-waving set of guidelines anyway, let’s start with the lime juice version, and see if we can make it more memorable.

One thing we can do is to make the lime juice based gin sour and top it up with soda. This is actually a most refreshing tall drink, but it is also already known as the Gin Rickey. (It is interesting to note that David Embury, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1958), drew no distinction between the Gimlet and the Gin Rickey. Of course, he also says you can make the drink with or without soda, which is a pretty confusing thing to say about any Rickey…)

Taking another path, we could try gin, lime juice, perhaps some bitters to give it a little depth, maybe a more flavorful sweetener than simple cane sugar—perhaps a little curaçao to take the edge off the lime.

Now we’re getting somewhere. This is a superior cocktail, and we might be able to get away with including those little tweaks in the free-for-all of the Gimlet formula. Except for one thing—we just reinvented the Pegu Club Cocktail.

23 thoughts on “Gimlet Cocktail: the libertarian’s delight

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  1. Doug, another brilliant entry on a brilliant cocktail. The gimlet is a timeless drink and as versatile as the numerous variations on how it is made. You surprised me (as much as yourself) with your preference for the Rose’s version, but hey, to each his own. I prefer the simplicity of fresh lime juice, but concede to the complexity of flavors that Rose’s offers. To add to the mix, I offer another old-school recipe as documented in Charles H. Baker’s “The Gentleman’s Companion: An Exotic Drinking Book (1939, 1946), which is a worthy library addition for any discerning and nostalgic connoisseur:

    The Far Eastern Gimlet
    * 1 jigger either of dry or old Tom gin
    * 1 tsp gomme (gum) syrup (simple syrup with beaten egg white)
    * 1/2 tsp (to taste) of lime syrup or lime cordial
    Fill up with chilled plain water, add 1 ice cube and thin slice of green lime. Don’t use soda water, please.

    1. Interesting variant. That one would be touch and go on being too sweet, but it looks from the measures like Baker was using a little restraint, with both the sugar and the lime flavor. I’ll have to give that one a try; thanks for posting it.

      As for preferring the Roses’s to fresh lime, well, yes, I was so shocked and amazed at discovering this preference that I almost didn’t write that part. But then I’d be a closet Rose’s Gimlet Drinker, which seems worse than being any other sort of Gimlet Drinker, so there it is. My father is probably wondering who took over writing the blog, and what they did with his son. But as you might guess, I did up a lot of Gimlet variants in prep for this article, and had plenty of opportunity to validate that choice. And the more Gimlets I made, the less I found myself wanting the fresh lime versions. Very strange, indeed.

  2. Gin-based cocktails with either lemon and lime really float my boat. Tom Collins, Gin Fizzes, Gin Rickeys, Gimlets, G&Ts with a slice, etc, etc. are all delicious and seriously refreshing cocktails.

    My understanding of a gimlet is that it doesn’t have anything fizzy in it and is a very strong mix of lime juice and gin, with a little gomme to take the edge of the sour note. So similar to the classic version you mentioned. They’re a great drink for summer evenings, in lieu of a G&T.

    1. I agree about the soda—that Embury reference equating the Gin Rickey and the Gimlet really caught me by surprise, though I’ve come across other references suggesting “topping up” the Gimlet since. Doesn’t seem right to me.

  3. Great post.
    I don’t think of the Gimlet as anything like the Rickey since I don’t sweeten my Rickeys at all. Beyond that, I’m firmly in the Rose’s camp myself. I use it in exactly two drinks, Gimlets and Kamikazes. Anything else and it’s a disaster.
    Also, you are right, you just can’t spend an evening enjoying Gimlets—they do wear out their welcome quickly.
    Finally, have you tried any of the other commercial lime cordials that compete with Rose’s? I’ve had luck with none of the one’s I’ve tried.

    1. Thanks, Doug. I haven’t looked under every rock, but Rose’s seems to be the only lime juice in my area, so I can’t compare. Google seems to know about some recipes for home brewed lime cordials and syrups, and it might be amusing to try that one day, but for now it’s only Rose’s.

  4. It would be an interesting exercise to try and create a more true tasting Gimlet without using Rose’s. Shooting from the hip here, but maybe something like Gin, Lime, Simple, Pineapple Gum Syrup and maybe a tiny splash of Smith and Cross rum for some funk?

    1. Yes, that would an amusing attempt—and anyone who pulls it off will get quite famous for it, I suspect. I think I’d start along the lines you suggest, with trying to make a first-rate sugar syrup and lime infusion, with extra ingredients to manage the more subtle flavors. It would be a bit like making your own bitters, I suspect—finding just the right exotics to make it work. It’s a very interesting idea.

      1. While I find nothing wrong with trying this, I suspect almost any cocktail lover has better things to do with his or her time than trying to duplicate the taste of Rose’s with other ingredients!
        If you are inclined toward the taste of the Rose’s Gimlet (or, The One True Gimlet™. Summon the Inquisition upon those who disagree), then there is already a great ingredient you can use that is a perfect match, widely available, and cheap. It’s called Rose’s….

        1. You’re right about things to do. It would be, at best, and “educational experience.”

          “The One True Gimlet,” I like that…

  5. Interesting article – just discovered your blog through a “Share” by Dry Fly about your “Last Word” cocktail.

    I’m a gimlet lover, but I don’t understand your dislike of the 50-50 version. As Raymond Chandler wrote in “The Long Goodbye,” “It beats Martinis hollow.” (Quoted from Paul Harrington, “Cocktail,” p. 96).

    I’m going to enjoy reading your backtrail of posts. Thanks!

    1. David, I’m glad you found Cold Glass, and I hope you’ll enjoy what you read.

      I’ve seen that Chandler quote. I’ve tried the 50-50 Gimlet, or part of one, and it is much sweeter than I can handle. Rose’s is interesting, but I don’t love it that much! Or maybe I’m just getting old.

  6. Hey Doug,
    Have you ever heard of a Gimlet being made with two nuts ( Hazelnuts or Cashews) as the “Mandatory” garnish ? I had a customer come in and tell me that we weren’t mking a “Proper ” Gimlet , without the two nuts in it. never heard of it myself, and can’t find any reference on the internet.

    1. I have heard of a Gimlet with a nut garnish, hazelnuts I think, but I’ve not heard of it as a requirement. Perhaps it’s a local dialect; I wonder where your customer was from?

  7. Doug,

    I really don’t want to be a party-pooper here, but it seems like you really are talking about a 5th graders watercolor like a Monet. It’s rather simple…. make the drink. I don’t particularly know how it is you managed to make this that complex, but, at the very least, I enjoyed reading your post, if only for a laugh than for any real information.

    Jack Anybody

  8. I’ve resisted the Gimlet for many years now based on memories of a dreadful commercial pre-mix that tasted more like a bad home chemistry lab experiment. Then last night the very knowledgeable head barman at my favourite local speakeasy persuaded me to try again. What a revelation! He used Plymouth gin, a house-made lime cordial and fresh lime juice in about a 2:1:1 ratio. This had such depth, such tang that I envision it is how the drink was supposed to taste. A bit of online research today turned up a very interesting recipe for fresh lime cordial (no water, no cooking, no tartaric etc acids) in of all places the NY Times! Just finished making it and the outcome tastes and smells very promising. It needs a 24hr rest in the fridge to meld flavours. Can’t wait for tomorrow night when the cordial will be ready for use. Cheers Philip Mills

    1. I’ve never tried making my own lime cordial; I’ll have to do that one of these days, and your comment is just enough inspiration to get it high on my to do list. Thanks!

  9. I am from Minnesota and always believed that the hazelnut was a standard garnish for a gimlet! Imagine my surprise (horror!) when I learned that people don’t do this outside Minnesota. :-) I would recommend it, btw. It goes great with the lime.

    1. Hi, Julie, and thanks for taking time for the thought-provoking comment. It’s interesting how food and drink preparation can be very local. I still remember my surprise and shock after ordering my first Wisconsin Old Fashioned. I goog’d the Gimlet/hazelnut combination and found a couple references that say that it is especially associated with Minnesota. But: I’m in Minnesota, too, and I have never, never, not ever, encountered a gimlet with a hazelnut (I grew up calling them “filberts”) garnish. You’re the first person who has ever brought it to my attention, and for that I am grateful. I’ve learned something about my home state that I’d not known before. I’m still trying to imagine the combination, and we all know I’m going to try it next time Gimlets hit the counter. It’s curious, perhaps local to the point of eccentricity, but I’m looking forward to it. Thanks!

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