It was long ago when we first did this episode but I recall it being a surprising one because the Gimlet has two origin possibilities that you can find online easily, one seems solid the other seems kind of like bullshit.
A gimlet is a common word especially even if you go back all the way to the 14th century you will find the word everywhere. This is because a gimlet was a tool used by brewers and vintners to bore holes into casks to release pressure inside. Gimlets were used in these trades commonly through the early 20th century and both the idea of the tool and its presence in the industry makes it an ideal candidate to be the name for a penetrating drink.
The second story involves a British navy surgeon by the name of Thomas Desmond Gimlette. According to the story he was the first to add lime juice to gin to get the sailors to take their lime ration. This is inevitably wrong because the British navy was already adding lime juice to their rum and gin since much earlier in the 19th century and Gimlette was a naval officer in 1879.
The story gets more interesting, however, when we include Lachlan Rose’s invention of a lime juice preserved with sugar in 1867. Rose was so successful in his enterprise that soon after he created his lime juice cordial he had a contract with the British Navy to provide the cordial in place of fresh lime juice for their ration. That’s still roughly ten years from the cordial invention to Gimlette’s active duty, not soon enough for him to crack open that first bottle of cordial and add it to gin and say, “Here, boys, fresh from the motherland!” But what we have seen over the years doing the show is that information moved differently back then and reasons something got attention were specific but even then took time to get around.
This drink doesn’t appear in print until 1920 from Harry MacElhone from what we found, and he adds the note, “A very popular beverage in the Navy.” So at it’s introduction it’s being attributed to the navy. We also see in The Admiral: the memoirs of Albert Gleaves, USN, a book written in 1934 about his experiences in 1920. This drink is heavily tilted to the British Navy experience.
As happens with these drinks that appear post Prohibition, immediately all of the other recipe books copy the original author and the drink reappears in all of the standard compilations at the time. By the 1950s it is everywhere getting an additional push by its appearance in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.
So we think the origins of this drink go way back possibly even the 18th century when the British were studying the effects of citrus juice in preventing scurvy among sailors, but the name doesn’t appear in print until 1920. The name, though, possibly was used as slang in the British navy all the way back to the 1880s