Summer solstice may be weeks away, but for most of us in the United States the season’s unofficial start is Memorial Day. And with it comes permission to wear linen and, better yet, drink light spirits. May we suggest a formidable gin classic, tailor-made for warm weather: the Gin Gimlet?
No official Memorial Day drink exists (unless you consider the milk that is customarily glugged by the winner of the Indianapolis 500 a drink—and we don’t), so we are free to form a new tradition. The Gimlet—with its mix of refreshing and tart Rose’s Lime Juice—is a perfect warm-weather thirst quencher that can hit the mark in just one shot. Plus it has a history that goes back almost as far as the first Memorial, or Decoration, Days, which started cropping up in 1865, soon after the Civil War ended.
The Brits laid the groundwork for the drink with the Merchant Shipping Act of 1867, which required their vessels to ration an ounce of sweetened lime or lemon juice daily to prevent scurvy caused by vitamin C deficiency (hence the term Limey for Brits). The Scotsman Lauchan Rose had in that same year developed a way to preserve lime juice that made it perfect for long ocean voyages. As the bottled concentrate is pretty hard to drink straight, sailors cut it with gin and a classic cocktail was born.
In these days of back-to-basic mixology, using fresh ingredients in place of pre-packaged preparations, it may be tempting to ditch the Rose’s Lime Juice in favor of fresh-squeezed and simple syrup. Don’t do it. This drink is intended to be made with the brand-name ingredient, just as a Dark ’n’ Stormy requires Gosling’s Rum or a Bacardi Cocktail is made with Bacardi. You may have success starting from scratch, but you’ll end up with a different drink, something like a Gin Daiquiri, not a Gimlet.
Two strong theories are advanced for the naming of the Gimlet. The first is that it is styled after Thomas Gimlette, a British Royal Navy surgeon general who promoted the mixture. The one we prefer is that gimlet referred to the auger-like tool, used by sailors to corkscrew into barrels to liberate gin. They’d siphon off their dram and replug the hole and no one would be the wiser. A third notion that the name evolved from the term “gimlet-eyed” is misguided. No one who has had a few Gimlets retains what that phrase means: a penetrating gaze.
We’ll likely never get to the bottom of it since the first print mention doesn’t come until 1928 in Douglas B. Wesson’s I’ll Never be Cured & I Don’t Much Care. While the title may make the Smith & Wesson scion and developer of the .357 magnum sound like an early-day Charlie Sheen, he’s writing about his devotion to golf, not drink. His description doesn’t mention Rose’s, but the first printed recipe—in the renowned Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930—describes 1/2 Plymouth gin and 1/2 Rose’s Lime Juice stirred in a glass with ice optional.
Hemingway mentions the Gimlet in his 1938 short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” as “the thing to do” just after the title character shows himself to be a coward. He doesn’t use Rose’s, but that may be taken as a cautionary tale as he is soon cuckolded and then shot by his wife. Geez, Francis, you think you should have just stuck to the recipe?
But the indelible argument for Rose’s comes in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953), when Terry Lennox, Limey-phile and erstwhile drinking buddy of Philip Marlowe, insists that “a real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.” The classic tough guy, Marlowe, also endorses it, which gives it instant credibility for us.
However, may we suggest that even while the ingredients are right the proportions are wrong? Half and half is way too much Rose’s, especially in the contemporary bottling, which has grown sweeter. Build it more like a Martini—three, four or five parts to one in favor of gin, shaken, strained and served straight up. The concentrated Rose’s preparation informs the Gimlet with a beguiling mixture of the tart and sweet that you could never achieve at that ratio with fresh-squeezed lime juice and simple syrup.
And that’s good news if you’re making the drink at home, because what cocktail could be easier than that? You don’t even really need the lime wheel, as the garnish is pretty much for show anyways. (That little sliver of fruit won’t make this drink much more limey than it already is.)
In you’re in an establishment with a so-called bar chef, you may have to make sure he goes the Rose’s route and doesn’t try to trick it out with the aforementioned fresh lime and simple syrup. If you’re in a lesser saloon, be careful that the drinks-slinger doesn’t try to slip you some vodka in place of gin…unless that’s what you want, but that has another name: Vodka Gimlet. If that’s what you want, order it that way.
As when building Manhattans, you should keep in mind the spirit brand you’re using when determining the proportions. Such fuller-flavored gins as Tanqueray and Beefeater’s can handle more lime juice. The new style lighter gins like Bombay, you don’t want to swamp with too much citrus. If you’re braving Dutch-style gins, ramp up the Rose’s.
Of course, our prescriptive of serving straight up is only a guideline. If having the ice right in the glass makes it for you, so be it. After all this a drink made to cool you off and can stand some dilution, which is more than we can say for milk.
3-5 parts gin
1 part Rose’s Lime Juice
lime wheel garnish
Shake gin and Rose’s with ice, strain into a cocktail glass or pour over ice in an Old-Fashioned glass. Add garnish.