Friday, September 20, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Gimlet

From last week’s drink born of spy fiction, we turn to one made famous by a shamus.

The gimlet, a gloss on the gin sour, is enough of a motif in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953) that it practically qualifies as a character. Philip Marlowe bonds with “lost dog” chum Terry Lennox over several rounds of them at Victor’s. When Lennox goes to the destiny that awaits all lost dogs, the cocktail serves as both memento mori and harbinger, a way for others who knew him to announce their presence. Only fitting, given how picky Terry was about his cocktail of choice. “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else,” he declares. “It beats martinis hollow.” To which Marlowe replies, “I was never fussy about drinks.”

I try not to be, either. But it’s about to get all fussy up in here.

The Terry Lennox gimlet
Any discussion of the gimlet begins with Rose’s Lime Juice. Scotsman Lauchlan Rose, charged with provisioning ships, developed a way to preserve lime juice without alcohol in 1867. The catchy version of the story is that a Royal Navy doctor named Thomas Gimlette hit upon the notion of combining this first fruit concentrate with gin as a way of keeping swabbies free of scurvy. It hasn’t been proven, alas, while it is known that the tool used to tap barrels on the bounding main was called a gimlet. Ironically, it was on an ocean liner returning from England that Chandler initially encountered the drink.

Rose’s has been part of the recipe from the beginning. The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) prescribes it in Terry Lennox’s 50/50 proportions, as does Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual. Multiple editions of Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts insist that “a true gimlet” must be made with Rose’s Lime Juice.

Here’s where we hit rough seas. In The Gentleman’s Companion, Charles H. Baker, Jr. wrote that a gimlet is to be made with lime cordial, a relatively simple combination of lime zest and sugar. He calls this “a British invention based on a similar essence to Rose’s Lime Juice,” which he deems more pungent and rightly exiled to soda fountains. If earlier iterations of the product, made decades before the brand was owned by a succession of international conglomerates, were wide of the mark, then contemporary variations certainly are. Chief among them the cloying American version with its generous lashings of high fructose corn syrup.

Order a gimlet in a decent cocktail bar and it’s likely it will be prepared with homemade lime cordial or at the very least fresh lime juice and simple syrup. What idiot would make one the Terry Lennox way now?

This idiot. At least to start.

The Jim Meehan gimlet
That meant acquiring Rose’s Lime Juice, which proved harder than I thought. A search of my local liquor stores and supermarkets yielded bupkis. I eventually unearthed a bottle in the neighborhood drug store. Under the fluorescent lights it glowed a “pale greenish” color, just like Marlowe said. I fixed a drink, equal parts gin and Rose’s. Yes, “it was both sweet and sharp at the same time.” Too sweet and too sharp, the gin hopelessly overpowered. It tasted like obligation and regret, or one of those frozen lime bars. Maybe it was because I’d just reread The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s darkest and most personal work, or maybe it’s that Rose’s Lime Juice is an inferior mixer that deserves retirement.

Next I turned to Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book. Meehan’s gimlet uses both fresh lime juice and lime cordial. I didn’t have the time (or the dozen limes) to follow his simple recipe for the latter so I opted for the Rose’s again, largely defeating the purpose of the exercise. The pucker factor was initially quite high, but as the drink settled it walked a tightrope between the authentic sourness of the lime and the Rose’s residual sweetness. Still, not a patch on the Last Word.

The Big Sleep
I stumbled onto a third variation. Brandon Herring, co-founder of the website BarNotes, accidentally combined the makings of a martini and a gimlet in the same beaker with gin being the common denominator. The resulting drink, he decided, could only be called The Big Sleep. I found it a touch too sweet with a lot going on in the glass but it’s still a solid spin, the dry vermouth an interesting counterpoint to the lime.

The Bennett
Terry Lennox sits in Victor’s and grouses, “They don’t know how to make them here ... What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters.” By stage four of my experiment, that was sounding pretty good to me. Even Marlowe, late in The Long Goodbye, requests bitters in his gimlet “just for tonight.”

As it happens, that drink has a name. The Bennett, so called after a Chilean land baron of the 1920s, is easily the belle of this particular ball. It alone achieves a balance of flavors, the lime a constant tart presence held in check by the welcoming leveling influence of Angostura. It’s the only one of these four I’d regularly make, in part because Terry Lennox would hate it. He’s nothing but trouble, that guy. And he doesn’t know a damn thing about drinking.

The Gimlet, Terry Lennox edition

½ gin
½ Rose’s Lime Juice

Stir. Strain. No garnish. No chance.

The Gimlet, Jim Meehan edition

2 oz. gin
¾ oz. lime cordial
¾ oz. fresh lime juice

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel.

The Big Sleep

Brandon Herring

2 ¼ oz. gin
¾ oz. dry vermouth
¾ oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup
dash of orange bitters

Shake. Strain. Lemon peel around the rim and discard.

The Bennett

2 oz. gin
1 oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. No garnish.