Cocktails With MAD MEN: The Gimlet

Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris finishes out the MAD MEN season with Betty Draper's favorite drink: the gimlet. 

While this is the season finale of Mad Men, fear not! Bill will be back with more brilliant, informative and fun cocktail posts for BAD readers, because we are very, very lucky. -Meredith

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We sat in the corner bar at Victor's and drank gimlets. ‘They don't know how to make them here,’ he said. ‘What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.’

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye 

In the second ever episode of Mad Men, Betty Draper joins Don, Roger Sterling and Roger’s first wife Mona for dinner and drinks in the City. In an early nod towards her insecurities and neuroses, Betty sucks down gimlets like a nervous sorority girl, and tops them with a heavy dinner of Lobster Newburg. On the way home, feeling queasy, she coos, “Lobster Newburg and gimlets should get a divorce. They're not getting along very well.”

Later, near the end of the second season, as the Cuban Missile Crisis looms, Don and Betty are separated, and Betty wanders into a Manhattan bar, looking to ape Don’s carefree and easy approach to casual sex. To steel her nerves before a tryst in the bar itself, Betty again turns to a gimlet. In that second episode, she specifically asks for a Vodka Gimlet, but during the Missile Crisis, she doesn’t specify a spirit. We can assume that gimlet was made as they’re supposed to be made, with gin, a spirit much more tuned to revenge sex than gentle vodka.

Occasionally, and mostly at home or at suburban parties, Betty will quaff a Tom Collins, but her seeming drink of choice, the gimlet, is deceptively simple and often at odds with the impulses of the new “mixologists” or craft bartenders. It is easy to do well at home; in its simplest form, it only requires two ingredients, some ice and a glass, but its history is surprisingly rich and tangled.

The Fresh Juice Conundrum

It is clear that fresh juice is always better in your cocktails that call for juice. Except when it isn’t. The first recipe to be specifically called a Gimlet appears in a British bartending guide dating from 1922:

Gimlet

1/2 Coates' Plymouth Gin

1/2 Rose's Lime Juice Cordial

Stir, and serve in same glass. Can be iced if desired.

A very popular beverage in the Navy.

 -- Harry MacElhone's ABC of Mixing Cocktails 

Good bartenders look with scorn upon anything mass produced, anything artificial, anything processed. Mostly, they are right and our drinks are better for it. As a result, at your better sort of bars, gimlets have become a mixture of gin, fresh lime, and simple syrup, shaken and served up. It is a tasty drink for sure, but it is no gimlet. It is a sort of gin sour maybe, or a relative of the daiquiri, but a gimlet it is not. Add a little soda, serve it over ice and you could call it a sweet gin rickey. Toss in an egg white, a dash or two of absinthe and top the egg white foam with a couple of drops of bitters, and you’ve got an improved gin sour and that is quite nice indeed.

But, if you’re not using a preserved lime juice of sorts, what you’re drinking is not a gimlet.

A Brief (Contentious) History of Rose’s Lime Juice

Any of the myriad official websites for companies that sell Rose’s Lime Juice/Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial around the world today contain a variation on the same creation myth: A certain Lauchlan Rose patented the method used to preserve citrus juice without alcohol in 1867 because The Merchant Shipping Act of that same year required all ships of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy to provide a daily lime ration to sailors to prevent scurvy. The product became nearly ubiquitous, helping to usher in the usage of "limey" for British sailors. The brand was introduced to the United States in 1901.

Unfortunately, much of this story is plain bunk, with the biggest issue being the Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 had absolutely zero to do with the Royal Navy. The Merchant and Royal Navies were two separate organizations, bound by different regulations and laws. It’s bad history.

The Merchant Shipping Act also required, “no Lime or Lemon Juice shall be so obtained or delivered from any Warehouse as aforesaid unless... the same contains Fifteen per Centum of proper and palatable Proof Spirits.” What Mr. Rose was trying to do, as the history accurately suggests, was to preserve lime juice without alcohol, thus making it unfit for use under the Merchant Shipping Act. Mr. Lauchlan, after patenting this process, went on to earn nine more patents, all to do with bottles and stoppers. Lime juice for use on ships was stored in barrels, not fragile bottles.

So what was Lauchlan up to? By the late 1800s, the temperance movement was in high spirits, and Mr. Rose was a merchant and most likely looking at the growing domestic market interested in booze free beverages.

“Vodka or Gin?”

A man walks into a saloon, bellies up to the rail and surveys his options amongst the bottles ranged on the back bar. “A Gimlet, please,” he says, “straight up.” From here it all goes to hell, because the most likely question to follow is, “What sort of vodka would you like?” or, better but still bad form, “Vodka or gin?” The gimlet, like the Martini and any other drink from before the end of World War II that has been usurped by vodka in the market is a gin cocktail, damn-it.

There is nothing wrong with a vodka gimlet (incompatibility with Lobster Newburg aside), except its being about as interesting on the palate as plain white rice. Vodka’s neutral flavor mixed with lime cordial is alcoholic limeade; with gin as the base, all those citrus and spice botanicals mingle with the lime and the sugar, but more importantly, lend some balance to the whole affair, helping to neutralize the overriding sweetness of the lime cordial.

A Theory on Origin

Despite dodgy corporate histories that claim otherwise, Royal Navy sailors were getting their rations of rum and lime as early as 1795. Officers however, were issued gin for their daily tipple, class being as prevalent an issue in the Royal Navy as any place else in the Realm - it just wouldn’t do for the officers to drink the same liquor as a common sailor. But it wasn’t just any gin. The British Navy had a large and formidable presence in Plymouth, home to its own unique style of gin, slightly softer than London Dry, and Plymouth Gin naturally made its way aboard ship. But proof was also important. Spirits purchased by the Navy had to be of “proper and palatable proof.” The standard test for proper proof was to soak gunpowder with the spirit and try to ignite it. If the powder went up, the booze was good. That happens at about 57% alcohol, so Navy Strength Gin came in at least 114 proof by our standards. Stout stuff.

There is also ample evidence that by the late 1800s Rose’s Lime was standard issue in the British Navy (again, stored in barrels not in glass), and the exceedingly high proof of Navy Strength Gin, taken with the general absence of ice aboard ship, helps to explain the fifty-fifty proportions of early gimlet recipes, because standard London Dry (about 46 percent alcohol) mixed in equal portions with Rose’s Lime Juice and diluted with ice would be pleasing only to the dentist who had to fix teeth ruined by that sweet mess. Up the gin to 114 proof though, and leave out the ice, and you’ve got another story entirely in terms of balance.

A Whole Lot More About Rose’s Lime Juice 

Modern Rose’s Lime Juice is a mess, with the Rose’s brand and mark owned by different companies and operators in different countries, all using different ingredients, in different proportions. In the United States, it is sold as Rose’s Lime Juice and owned by The Dr. Pepper-Snapple group. The bottle lists its ingredients as: Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Concentrated Lime Juice, Sodium Metabisulfite, and Blue No. 1. Not very appealing.

In Canada, it is still called Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial, and because the government doesn’t stupidly subsidize corn production, it uses real sugar: Water, Sugar, Concentrated Lime Juice, Citric Acid, Natural Flavour, Sodium Metabisulphite, colour.

In Great Britain, it’s sold by Coca Cola, also using the cordial moniker and contains: Water, Lime Juice from Concentrate (5%), Sugar, Citric Acid, Preservative (Sodium Metabisulphite), Flavourings, Colours (E104, E142).

Let’s break it down. All version contain lime juice, either concentrated, or from concentrate. All contain a sweetener. The Canadian and British versions add Citric Acid (presumably to punch up the tartness level). All have colo(u)ring and all have Sodium Metabisulphite, a widely used food preservative that extends the shelf life of the stuff to obscene levels. But they also all taste different, and the modern American Rose’s Lime has a particularly odd, artificial flavor.

Some of that flavor though, which has been described as “cooked” or “marmalade like” by its advocates is part of what makes a gimlet a gimlet. Ed Hamilton, who has made a nice life out of importing rum and sailing a boat around the Caribbean, has discovered that the Rose family initially shipped lime juice, preserved with sugar, back to England from the British colony in Dominica. That juice was stored and shipped in barrels. Barrels stored in a ship’s hold are subject to extreme temperatures, and susceptible beverages can take on a “cooked” flavor during long ocean voyages. Could the “cooked” flavor that distinguishes Rose’s Lime juice from a standard mixture of fresh lime and sugar syrup be a result of the ocean voyage? Quite possible. Could Lauchlan have been trying to duplicate that flavor with his bottled product? Also possible. Has anyone else posited this theory? Not according to Google.

None of this can change, though, that what we can buy as Rose’s Lime Juice probably isn’t exactly what was being rolled onto Royal Navy Ships, or even what graced our grandparent’s liquor cabinets. And thus a dilemma. Modern Rose’s Lime juice is kind of nasty. Other widely available commercial brands aren’t any better. Finest Call, in particular, should be avoided at any and all costs.

Solution? Use a small batch product like Employee’s Only Lime Cordial if you can find it.  Or make your own. It’s not hard, it lasts nearly forever, and it will taste significantly better.

To Stir or to Shake?

This is a tough call. Normally, with a citrus juice component in your drink, you would shake and be done with it. But because the lime juice in the gimlet is essentially a syrup, it might be best to stir. Do what you prefer. Shaking will be colder, perhaps more crisp, and appropriate for the patio. Stirred, your gimlet will be heavier, with a silkier texture, more appropriate for a pre-dinner cocktail.

The Only Things That Belong in a Gimlet

Gin, either Plymouth or London Dry. Lime Juice Cordial. Ice. A quick squeeze of a fresh lime wedge for garnish.

Things That Don’t Belong in a Gimlet

Anything else.

Some Recipes: 

The Gimlet

2 oz. London Dry or Plymouth Gin
.5 oz. Homemade Lime Cordial

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake or stir until cold, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass or over fresh ice. Garnish with a squeeze from a wedge of lime. If using Rose’s lime juice or similar, adjust proportions to 3 parts gin to one part Rose’s lime juice.

Homemade Lime Cordial

Zest of 6 limes
1 cup lime juice
1 cup sugar
1 kaffir lime leaf (optional)

Remove the zest of 6 limes, leaving as much white pith behind as you can. Juice those limes plus enough more to make 1 cup of lime juice, strained of pulp and seeds.

In a saucepan, combine lime and sugar and the kaffir lime leaf if using and gently bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. When syrup just starts to boil, add zest and remove from heat. When syrup has cooled to room temperature strain out solids, bottle and store in fridge.

Enjoy.

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Previous Posts:

The Old Fashioned

The Martini

The Margarita

The Mai Tai

The Daiquiri

The Manhattan

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