When, on a recent Monday, we gathered a group of guest bartenders in search of the ultimate representation of the Gimlet, the first order of business seemed to be: What is that, anyway?
The Top Three
“The Gimlet is an interesting drink because it doesn’t have a platonic ideal,” said bar owner Toby Cecchini, one of the judges.
Cecchini knows more than your average barkeep about the cocktail. He’s had a house Gimlet on the menu at Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar ever since he opened in 2013, and has experimented with the cocktail for longer than that. “Bartenders will make you something like a Rickey when you order one,” he said. “Those who know it requires a lime cordial would be hard pressed to tell you what that is.”
Cecchini makes a lime cordial from scratch for his Long Island Gimlet. For much of the Gimlet’s history, however, the cordial in question has been Rose’s lime juice, a ubiquitous product found in almost every supermarket and tucked away, gathering dust, in the back of countless home bars. Rose’s is the ball and chain the Gimlet has been dragging around for decades. In fact, the cocktail and cordial are so inextricably linked in people’s minds that a good many Gimlet fanciers will insist that the drink isn’t a Gimlet without Rose’s.
Of the 14 Gimlets sampled at the PUNCH offices, a couple of the recipes included Rose’s, while the others eschewed it completely. That is a fair illustration of the cocktail community’s split disposition toward it. Many cocktail bartenders view Rose’s—which contains high fructose corn syrup, preservatives and dyes—as typifying the sort of fake, manufactured product they’ve railed against as they sought to bring classic cocktails back to respectability. Others are more charitable, giving Rose’s its historical due. Whatever its faults, the item—which has been made commercially since 1868—has long played a role of some kind in the building of a Gimlet. The first known printed recipe for the drink, in Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails (1922), by Harry MacElhone, calls for equal parts gin and Rose’s. And the influential Savoy Cocktail Book, published eight years later, does the same. In the ensuing years, the portion of Rose’s asked for has lessened, but it was always there.
PUNCH’s Gimlet panel—which also included St. John Frizell of Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance; Tristan Willey, most recently of Long Island Bar; PUNCH’s Gimlet-loving assistant editor Chloe Frechette; and myself—were not admirers of Rose’s.
Frizell, like many bar professionals, suspects Rose’s was once a good and fairly natural product but has been debased over the years as it has changed ownership and become more mass-produced. (It is currently owned by Dr. Pepper Snapple.) “When a product changes as much as Rose’s has over the years, it’s no longer a required ingredient in the only cocktail it’s known for,” declared Frizell.
So, if Rose’s doesn’t make a Gimlet in today’s world, what does? “I think we can all agree that a Gimlet is not a Gimlet without lime cordial,” offered Cecchini. The gathered circle seemed to concur. However, when Willey was coming up in the bartending trade, he was taught when fielding a Gimlet order to basically follow a Daiquiri spec (rum, sugar, lime juice), but use gin. And, as the tasting bore out, that is still what you’ll get in most quality bars when you ask for the cocktail.
Gin wasn’t up for negotiation. Though the vodka Gimlet enjoyed a vogue in the last century, the judges were uninterested in the variation. As to which gin, the panel was not discriminating. “The drink is open to any gin,” said Cecchini, “but it varies widely based on the gin.” He added that, “The gin shouldn’t come out full force. It should be one element in the drink.” An ideal Gimlet, for him, had to boast a good deal of lime aromatics when the glass was lifted to the nose. Frechette agreed, saying, “It’s that first sip where you should get the full lime and gin in your face.”
While it was agreed that most Gimlets are served up—and customers expected them to come that way—historically, there was nothing to dictate that the cocktail couldn’t be served on the rocks. Indeed, early recipes state the drink “can be iced if desired.”
Perhaps to make up for the lack of a rock-solid modern template for the drinks, the recipes varied considerably in preparation and ingredients, with all participants finding their own way around the lime-cordial conundrum. Some split the citrus element between Rose’s and fresh lime juice. A few came with recipes for homemade cordial. One instructed the mix be shaken with the hull of the lime. Some brought in outlier ingredients, such as a dash of absinthe or a touch of salt.
The winning drinks were divided between two types: those that required a freshly made lime cordial, and those that answered the cordial question through the combined use of lime juice and simple syrup. No drink using Rose’s won out.
Tom Macy of Clover Club in Brooklyn delivered the winning formula with a simple construction: two ounces of Tanqueray gin, three-quarters of an ounce of simple syrup and half an ounce of fresh lime juice. The method was not as simple: After muddling two lime wedges in the syrup, the gin and lime juice were added and the entire mixture shaken and fine-strained. (Frizell quipped that it was a “gin Caipirinha.”) The panelists found the drink well-balanced and “Gimlet-y.”
Coming in second was Cecchini’s own Long Island Gimlet, with two ounces of Citadelle Gin, one ounce of lime cordial and three-quarters of an ounce of fresh lime juice. His lime cordial has a touch of ginger in it that gave the mixture a bit of heat, which, according to the panel, was a subtle enough twist that it did not detract from the drink’s standing as a Gimlet. Rather, they found that it had good body and was dependably delicious sip after sip.
Third place went to Sarah Morrissey of Frenchette, in Manhattan. Hers was the simplest construction of all, blending two ounces of Tanqueray, three-quarters of an ounce of simple syrup (1 1/2:1) and one ounce of fine-strained lime juice. The panel found it “well-knit.”
Despite the simplicity of Morrissey’s recipe, Frizell still maintained a Gimlet could not just be a gin Daiquiri. “It’s got to have something more to it,” he said. Perhaps that something more is a good bartender.