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.