A classic gin gimlet / Photo by Tyler Zielinski
The gimlet is a cocktail based on gin and lime juice that dates to the 1800s, putting its age in company with classics like the Old Fashioned or the martini.
The drink’s origins are murky but tend to follow the tale of sailors in the British navy adding liquor to mandated rations of lemon and lime juice meant to combat scurvy. Variations of this story have been recycled over and over again to describe the invention of everything from the mojito (Sir Francis Drake battling scurvy on expeditions to Cuba) to the Singapore Sling (descendent from the gin and lime or gin and tonic combinations meant to allegedly combat scurvy and malaria, respectively). The gimlet is often claimed to have been coined after Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette, a British naval doctor, or possibly named for a tool for boring holes on ships. Like most cocktail legends, scant evidence exists to definitively prove either narrative.
Whether these drinks were created to specifically combat vitamin C deficiencies or simply came about based on humans’ innate desire to take alcohol and mix it with whatever’s onhand to see if it tastes good, or both, the cocktail’s longevity owes to gin and lime being a natural pairing.
What’s in a gimlet?
At its heart, the gimlet is a combination of three ingredients: gin, lime juice and sugar (usually in the form of simple syrup). Other spirits can be substituted, like vodka, which has turned the word “gimlet” into something of a cocktail-modifier, meaning “spirit combined with lime juice and sugar.”
But the gimlet’s story is also indelibly tied to another product with roots in the 19th century, Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial.
In Britain, during the 19th-century period of mandatory lime rations for the navy, juice was often preserved for long journeys by mixing it with smaller amounts of a neutral spirit. Seeking alternative preservation techniques, a ship provisioner named Lachlan Rose patented a method to preserve lime juice using sugar rather than alcohol, correctly surmising that this non-alcoholic variation would open a larger market for his product.