The origin of the gimlet cocktail is subject to some debate. I prefer the (likely apocryphal) version that attributes its origin to one Surgeon Admiral Sir Thomas Gimlette KCB of the English Royal Navy. It is said that the good Admiral insisted his sailors add a nip of lime cordial to their daily ration of gin as a preventative measure in warding off scurvy. If this is in fact an accurate attribution, there is no explanation for why the last two letters of Sir Thomas’s surname were lopped off.
The name of the beverage is, however, an exact match for the name of a small hand tool used for the drilling of holes in wood or leather. Perhaps the person who bestowed the name likened the drink to a compact, piercing instrument of cold metal. A proper gimlet is indeed an icy, bracingly sharp concoction, so this version of the story does have legs—albeit not sea-legs.
Just as there are multiple versions of the gimlet’s backstory, there are multiple variations of the cocktail itself. The original is widely accepted to be a gin-based drink, however vodka is another popular and perfectly acceptable base.
Regardless of one’s preferred spirit, what makes a gimlet a gimlet is the presence of sweetened lime juice. Many bars opt for the commercially prepared version; Rose’s, patented in the 1860s, has long been the standard-bearer of this category. It has a fascinating history itself, and is owned now, astonishingly, by the Keurig Dr. Pepper Group.
The ratio of spirit to juice is the subject of some debate. Some recipes call for equal measures. This produces what I find to be an overly sticky, sweet-sour potion that pummels the liquor and, in concert with a store-bought mixer, creates a cocktail that looks like it was stirred with one of the control rods that Homer Simpson brought home from the nuclear power plant.
For my tastes, even a 2:1 ratio of spirit to juice creates a drink that packs a mighty pucker punch. This could be an acceptable formula if one is using speed-rail grade spirits, but if there’s top-shelf booze in the mix, one wants to enjoy the flavors of both components of the cocktail. This is a drink to be savored, not gulped down straight off the squash court. A 3:1 ratio hits my not-too-sweet spot and allows the drinker to enjoy the citrusy tang without losing the sensation of enjoying a sophisticated adult beverage.
A gimlet should always be consumed as close to ice cold as possible, whether that be shaken into a frozen coupe or martini glass or poured over ice into a rocks glass. I prefer the latter, particularly over a single, large cube or sphere so as to limit the amount of dilution. A little melt won’t hurt, but a watery gimlet is no better than hard limeade.
Rose’s or the other bottled juices are fine. I prefer to make my own mix, by the drink, preferably if key lime juice is available. Here’s how I do it:
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice.
Into that pour 1 ½ ounces of gin or vodka, ½ ounce of unsweetened key lime juice , 1 tsp of bar sugar or ½ ounce of simple syrup.
Shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds. Pour into your choice of vessel. Garnish with a lime wedge or, if available, a small key lime sliced in half.
Enjoy the literal and figurative fruit of your labor.