The Gimlet Gets Its Groove Back

That classic combination of gin and Rose's lime cordial was long regarded as sacrosanct—that is, until a new generation of bartenders got ahold of it. Brett Moskowitz on the profusion of modern Gimlets, and how they've ushered in a new appreciation for the drink.

It’s unclear whether the Gimlet was named after a British Admiral and ship doctor named Gimlette or for a tool called a gimlet used to tap barrels of alcohol aboard 19th-century British naval vessels. But there is little doubt that gin was commonly mixed with Rose’s lime cordial by sailors and that this concoction would come to be known as a Gimlet.

Invented and bottled by Scottish businessman Lauchlin Rose in 1867, Rose’s started out as a simple combination of concentrated lime juice and sugar, which allowed fruit juice to be preserved for months without alcohol. The cordial was quickly adopted as a ration for sailors in the British Navy who needed the citrus to ward off scurvy during months at sea. Although scurvy prevention is no longer the driving force behind Gimlet consumption, today’s cocktail renaissance has ushered in a re-imagining of the drink utilizing all the tools, techniques and ingredients the modern trade has at its disposal.

Early recipes called for equal parts gin and Rose’s. But in the post-WWII era, savvy bartenders responded to changing tastes by upping the ratio of gin to Rose’s from equal parts to about three to one. The Rose’s brand was sold off to Schweppes in 1957, and by the early 1980s the company’s ownership had splintered. The version made available in the US today (owned by Dr Pepper Snapple Group) contains high-fructose corn syrup, additives and preservatives, while the UK version (operated by Coca-Cola Enterprises) is still made with real sugar and without preservatives. Both versions remain cloyingly sweet, which puts Rose’s somewhat at odds with the modern bartender’s palate.

“I always knew the ‘original’ Gimlet as one containing Rose’s,” says Naren Young of Dante in New York. “But no self-respecting bartender these days would ever use it, surely.”

But there are still old-schoolers who remain loyal to the classic Rose’s Gimlet. The devoted are adamant that the now-popular practice of replacing it with fresh lime juice and sugar—essentially creating a Gin Sour or gin-based Daiquiri—does not meet customer expectations. “A Gimlet made with lime juice and sugar, while arguably a ‘better’ drink, will no longer have the flavor profile that customers recognize,” says Robert Hess, author of The Essential Bartender’s Guide: How to Make Truly Great Cocktails and co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail.

While the 150-year-old bond between Rose’s and gin still has its devotees, craft bartenders on the other side of the divide are ushering in a new canon of Gimlet improvements and riffs— and, with them, a resurgence in appreciation and visibility for the drink.  “I always knew the ‘original’ Gimlet as one containing Rose’s,” says Naren Young of Dante in New York. “But no self-respecting bartender these days would ever use it, surely.” Many substitute either a bottled lime cordial that uses only natural ingredients (such as one made from cane sugar from El Guapo Bitters), their own house-made lime cordial or, most commonly, fresh lime juice and simple syrup.

At the recently opened New York bar The Bennett (named after a classic Gimlet variation with Angostura bitters), Meaghan Dorman creates her own high-tech lime cordial. She puts a combination of lime juice, sugar, lime zest and cassia (cinnamon) bark in an immersion circulator for two hours. When finished, she strains out the zest and cassia and has a cordial that she says adds an almost “sorbet-like” quality to drinks. “You can tell if a bar is moving with the modern palate if they have adjusted their house Gimlet to fresh lime and sugar or even less Rose’s lime cordial,” says Dorman. “It should be a clean, crisp drink with the gin really being the star.”

In one of New York’s most beloved Gimlet makeovers, Toby Cecchini of Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar spikes his housemade lime cordial with the cocktail world’s “ketchup” du jour, ginger, for a spicy play on the original. “Once you get the concept of the lime cordial ironed out, the Gimlet is a dead-simple, three-ingredient drink to make,” he says, referencing the importance of curing the lime with both its own acid and sugar while incorporating the all-important citrus oil from the peel. “The way [both fresh lime juice and lime cordial] present the lime from two directions, one cured and one fresh, is just bonkers good.”

Brett Moskowitz is a Manhattan-based writer who contributes stories on the history of classic cocktails for Saveur. When not writing about cocktails, he is writing about medicine.