“It started with what a Gimlet wasn’t,” says Alba Huerta of creating the bright, bracing cocktail that’s become a signature, snack-sized welcome drink at her Houston bar Julep.
Specifically, it was a sour, not a Gimlet, recalls Huerta, distinguishing between the spirit-citrus-sugar build of the former and the requisite cordial that makes a Gimlet a Gimlet.
Huerta dates her first version of the drink back to 2010, when she worked at Grand Prize Bar, also in Houston. At that time, “we were just trying to make classic cocktails happen in the state of Texas,” she remembers. Although she was aware of the prevalence of Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial in historic Gimlet recipes, Huerta wasn’t a fan of the product; a drink made with it “just wouldn’t be good, wouldn’t be delicious.”
At first, her “Gimlet” was made with fresh lime juice and simple syrup, and given backbone by Hayman’s Old Tom gin, at the time newly introduced in the United States. “In Texas, if you ask for a Gimlet, you get something with fresh lime juice,” she says.
The drink got an upgrade in 2014, when Huerta was working on the opening menu for The Pastry War, a mezcalería in Downtown Houston, and began making lime cordial. But it was an accidental upgrade, intended for a drink that—once again— wasn’t a Gimlet.
“It was used for [frozen] Margaritas, so they would preserve that bright, zesty flavor,” Huerta explains. The housemade cordial begins with what she calls “spa water”: water infused with the peels of key and Persian limes. Initially, the spa water was a way to utilize the discarded peels from the many limes the bar was juicing for cocktails on a daily basis. It would be funneled into the frozen drink machine to help create the desired frozen texture. Eventually, that “spa water” also became part of a cordial, along with sugar and lime juice, to create bolder flavor and a thicker, syrup-like consistency.
Compared to the brute-force method of mixing lime juice with simple syrup, the “spa water” technique created a “much brighter product,” ideal for mixing into a drier Gimlet. Shaken with Tanqueray, a classic London dry–style gin instead of the sweeter Old Tom, and a small amount of lime juice, this version now “had all the elements,” Huerta says, “but it wasn’t a Gimlet the way it should be.”
But that would soon change.
The catalyst, Huerta recalls, was a 2014 article in Bon Appétit that focused on chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s use of dried limes as a staple of Iranian cooking. She procured some and started to experiment. “When you crush them, they have the most fragrant, beautiful flavor of lime zest and citrus,” she says. They added a distinctly “deep, kind of rustic” characteristic, and became the foundation of her lime cordial.
The eureka moment created a ripple effect that prompted her to change the rest of the Gimlet, too. The gin had already been switched from Old Tom to a London dry style, taking it a step further Huerta prefers Ford’s Officer’s Reserve, a navy-strength bottling, although she notes that an array of gins also work harmoniously with the cordial. “It just expressed so much more of the botanicals in the gin,” she explains. “It was just brighter.”
The technique changed, too. Unlike her early version, no citrus is added beyond what’s already in the cordial, allowing her to stir rather than shake the cocktail, enabling her to pre-batch and chill the mixture to pour in “snack-sized” cocktail glasses as a welcome drink. Of course, it’s also available to order as a full-size drink. “It became a Gimlet we were proud to serve.”
But that doesn’t mean the formula won’t change again. “As long as there are new products coming into the market, there are new ideas,” says Huerta. “A new product could change how five different drinks are made,” she says. And that’s a good thing, she concludes. “It’s good to go off on a tangent.”