If you're into thinkin' and drinkin'

Episode 7: Pierced by a Gimlet – The Gimlet


This is an amazing episode. Since we recorded it, I’ve flipped it back and forth in my mind considering the content. My position on the Gimlet story has changed since I first heard it, but I’m still astounded by how it all comes together.

Jason started be describing how he located the recipe first in Patrick Gavin Duffy’s book, The Official Mixer’s Manual and then verified that it was also in the UK Bartenders Guild’s Cafe Royal Cocktail Book. Jay explained that when he does preliminary searches and finds the recipes first in these post-Prohibition usually he finds the first printed example of the cocktail in question in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book or Harry McElhone’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails. In this case, he found the Gimlet in both which means that McElhone had the first printed version of the recipe in 1925. All evidence points to McElhone as the originator of this drink.

Now, we’re not saying that he’s the first person to put gin and lime juice together. What we are saying is that he’s the first person to serve it in a bar as an enjoyable beverage, give it the name it has, list it in a recipe book and have that all carry forward through history as this one drink. The rest of the story all depends upon the name.

What everybody knows (or at least what every early 20th century bartender knows) is that a gimlet is a tool for boring into wood usually to vent gas from a cask. It’s a simple design that makes the task easy even turning it by hand. This is the obvious origin of the name. Named after the tool, it’s another cocktail that generally denotes getting wasted as the drink has a sharp bite of the lime followed by the penetration of the gin. We could stop there. It would be very easy to.

However, further investigation reveals that in the Covey Crump manual of British Naval slang a gimlette is the 19th century name for the British Naval lime ration (originally instituted in 1795, this is why British are called “limeys”) mixed with gin. This word can be directly correlated with an individual, a Mr. Thomas Desmond Gimlette, who was a British Naval surgeon stationed in Malay around 1878-79 who was known for instituting a citrus ration in gin to the sailors to prevent scurvy. This is a fact, well-known and solid. Because Harry McElhone enlisted in a branch of the British Royal Navy in 1916 it is extremely likely that he became familiar with the gin-lime ration and its name so that when he returned to civilian life in 1919 and began working at Ciro’s in London he had a new cocktail recipe ready to try out at the bar.

So we have two really good origins for the cocktail name and one, though more complex, seems very likely. The problem with this is that familiarity with the best story is not likely, so by default most people would assume the easiest story. As Rachel points out, it’s not hard for the stories to get conflated and in a way start to be true in both cases. Unfortunately, it seems that the T.D. Gimlette story has a good chance of vanishing entirely even though there is a good chance it is truly the origin of the cocktail name.

Its return to cocktail culture in the 50s was caused by the popular novel by Raymond Chandler The Long Goodbye wherein one of the characters expounds upon the virtues and proper recipe for the Gimlet. Rachel expanded upon the idea of the popularity of prepared foods in the 50s, a middle class luxury making life seem upper class, and how Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial fits right into that narrative also making the Gimlet a perfect cocktail for the age. Sixty-five years later the Gimlet makes a second return as both craft cocktails experience a resurgence in popularity in conjunction with the popularity of the cocktail drenched television series Madmen.

What’s in it:

  • 2.5 oz gin
  • 0.5 oz Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial
  • 0.5 oz lime juice

Another big shocker in this episode was the age of Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial. Children of the packaged food generation, we expect all of these over-preserved, food-prep-short-cut ingredients to have been formulated in some Frankenstein lab somewhere in Ohio in the 50s. It’s one of the prejudicial crosses we bear. To learn that it was invented by a Scotsman in 1867 blew us all away. We’re also used to decrying preserved foods out-of-hand, but to learn about its role in supporting global travel and expansion puts the practice under a new light. It played a part as a stepping stone to global human achievement, one that is now less visible because our need to preserve foods has been supplanted by new developments in transportation and food production. Nevertheless, humbling.

Michael brought us two versions of the Gimlet. The Brixton version, following the latest trend in fresh/artisan/craft food and drink, used only fresh lime juice and dressed it up with a sugared rim and as always an original/classic version following the recipe from our book. Truth be told, most considered the Rose’s version to be more smooth and drinkable. Only Bethany preferred the fresh lime juice to the Rose’s. I, of course, discouraged by all things lime flavored, could leave this drink for the Brits.

Transition music: Cephalopod by Kevin MacLeod
Closing Music: Heart of Oak official march of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom

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