“that which I have seene most fruitful is sower [sour] oranges and lemons . . . I wish that some learned man would write of it [scurvy], for it is the plague of the sea, and the spoyle of mariners.”
— Sir Richard Hawkins, 1590
A gimlet is a small hand drill, meant (back when things were still sealed in barrels) to drill a hole in a barrel and let whatever was put inside out. A gimlet pierces things, and so people with a sharp gaze were “gimlet-eyed”. A Gimlet also pierces. Made from gin and lime, it’s meant to be a short, sharp drink tossed down the hatch, but modern, craft oriented bartenders take one look at the neon-green, corn syrup filled Rose’s lime juice that’s supposed to go into the drink and think about either making their own lime cordial or simply substituting fresh lime juice and sugar. And I don’t think they’re wrong.
The gimlet actually has a rather short history in print. Harry MacElhone prints the first recipe for the Gimlet in his “ABC’s of Mixing Cocktails” (1922) as one half Coates Plymouth gin and one half Rose’s Lime Cordial with the odd instructions to “Stir and serve in the same glass. Can be iced” and a short note saying it was a popular drink in the Navy. Thirty years later, Raymond Chandler has one of his characters in The Long Goodbye maintain that “a real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's lime juice and nothing else.”
But 1922 wasn’t the gimlet’s first mention in print. In his memoirs, Admiral Albert Gleaves of the United States Navy mentioned that while on a visit to Tientsin, China in September of 1920, “… I was served a new drink called gimlet – a mild affair of gin, lime juice and water”.
So how does this mild Chinese affair of a drink of gin and lime juice and water that is quite similar to a Gin Rickey within a few years become a popular Royal Navy drink of half high proof gin and half sweet-tart and preserved tasting Rose’s lime Cordial? The story a bit stranger than you might think.
Let’s go back three hundred years. In the early 17th century, life aboard a ship in the Royal Navy was pretty miserable. Everything edible was either salted, dried or both, and the food was monotonous: beef, pork, peas, and hard, unsalted biscuit. For hydration, it was a gallon of small (weak) beer per man. Invariably, after ten to twelve weeks of this diet, the men developed scurvy.
We think about scurvy now as a disease that no one gets, that is well understood and easily curable. Scurvy killed three million sailors in the three hundred years between the end of the 15th century and the end of the 18th century. Scurvy is lethal and horribly unpleasant, and many ships lost 70% of their men due to it alone.
The main problem with scurvy is that no one really knew what caused or cured it. It has been described since the Egyptians in the 15th century BCE, but the cause of the disease wasn’t formally elucidated until 1923. Scurvy is caused by a lack of Vitamin C, something that most animals make but humans (and guinea pigs) must obtain through their diet.
Vitamin C is present in red bell peppers, citrus juice (though more in orange and lemon than in lime, as we’ll see later), organ meats, and some evergreen trees. From the beginnings of the Age of Exploration, sailors knew what scurvy was and what sorts of things cured it – almost always fresh produce, but especially the juice of lemons and oranges.
“Succus Limonum, or juice of lemons expelling and refrigerating… [i]t being very cordial of itself, and the most precious help that ever was discovered against the Scurvy to be drunk at all times; for it mightily opens all obstructions and refresheth and restoreth nature.”
— John Woodall (Chief Surgeon of the East India Company), The Surgeon’s Mate, 1613, pg. 89
Problematically, vitamin C is fragile. It’s destroyed by oxidation and heat, so that by the time sailors needed it most, it’s been destroyed by being on a ship. Preserving liquids during that time typically meant reducing them by boiling. Putting them in a barrel invariably meant oxidation, both through the wood and in the headspace.
Amazingly enough, sailors and their surgeons figured out something that the most learned of the medical establishment did not, and they proved it time and time again, to no avail. In 1597, Sir Hugh Plat recommended that only fresh lemon juice be used to prevent scurvy, and to cover the juice with olive oil, instead of cooking it. It would take almost 200 years for another naval surgeon to rediscover this idea.
In the mean time, the British captured Jamaica in 1655, and the beer ration – which must have taken up an incredible amount of space on a ship – was changed to what was now domestically produced rum, at half a pint (8 oz) a day divided into two servings.
On May 20th, 1747, James Lind, surgeon on HMS Salisbury, took twelve men suffering from scurvy and paired them off. In addition to their normal diet, one pair got a quart of cider a day. Another got 25 drops of oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid). The other pairs received vinegar, a pint of seawater, or a purging medicine. None recovered. The last pair ate two oranges and a lemon a day, and were better six days later, when the supply ran out. Lind had run a (somewhat) controlled medical trial and proved that there was something unique about oranges and lemons, but not the acidic vinegar or sulfuric acid, that cured scurvy.
Lind left the Navy the following year and devoted his life to writing about scurvy and attempting to cure it. He made something called rob, which was the strained juice of two dozen lemons or oranges reduced at beneath a boil to a few ounces. This certainly preserved the acidity (I’ve made a small batch of the stuff – it smells like lemon curd but is painfully acidic), but destroyed whatever vitamin C was in the juice. It took him until 1778 to realize what Hugh Plat knew almost two hundred years earlier – that fresh juice covered with oil remained effective against scurvy for a long time.
By the 1790’s, things began moving faster. Two Scottish surgeons, Thomas Trotter and Gilbert Blaine not only rediscovered that citrus juice cured scurvy and that it could be preserved with alcohol instead of boiling, but kissed up to their superiors enough that in 1795, strained lemon juice preserved with spirits became part of the standard ration for Royal Navy ships away from shore for any length of time.
So this cured scurvy in the Royal Navy. At least until 1845, when the governor of the Bermuda convinced the navy to change out lemon juice (which came from Portugal or the Mediterranean) for lime juice, which conveniently was sourced from plantations in the British West Indies. No one knew that a lime only has about half of the vitamin C that a lemon has. It was thought that a lime being more sour than a lemon meant it was more efficacious. By this time, the people at the highest risk for scurvy were Arctic explorers, and after a few expeditions supplied with lime juice came down with scurvy, their juice rations were increased.
In 1867, two big things happened. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 was passed which brought English merchant ships in line with Naval vessels:
(3.) No Lime or Lemon Juice shall be deemed fit and proper to be taken on board any such Ship, for the Use of the Crew or Passengers thereof, unless the same has been obtained from a Bonded Warehouse for and to be shipped as Stores…nor unless the same contains Fifteen per Centum of proper and palatable Proof Spirits… [nor] unless the same is packed in such Bottles…”
(5.) The Master of every such Ship…shall serve or cause to be served out the Lime or Lemon Juice with Sugar (such Sugar to be in addition to any Sugar required by the Articles)…the Lime or Lemon Juice and Sugar to be served out daily at the Rate of an Ounce each per Day to each Member of the Crew, and to be mixed with a due Proportion of Water before being served out…”
— Merchant Shipping Act, 1867, emphasis mine
If you’re keeping track, the rum ration was 2 ounces (a tot), with 1 ounce of lime juice, 1 ounce of sugar and 6 ounces of water. From a modern standpoint, the lime juice and sugar made a basic cold-processed lime cordial. This is what the “ratings” – the enlisted men – drank. Petty officers and above could take their tot neat.
Speaking of lime cordials, 1867 also was a great year for a fellow named Lachlan Rose, who patented a method of preserving lime juice using the winemaking trick of burning sulfur to stabilize the juice instead of alcohol. This stuff was put into decorative glass bottles embossed with lime leaves and fruit and called Rose’s Lime Juice.
Lachlan Rose wasn’t looking to sell his newfangled preserved lime juice to merchant vessels or the navy – it had no alcohol in it. He was, however, riding a wave of Temperance in England, and his pretty bottles of lime juice (and sweetened cordial and lime “Champagne”, and “limetta-ginger”) were instantly popular as soft drinks. The July 3rd 1880 Church of England Temperance Chronicle has an ad for Rose’s Lime Juice that mentions it’s an antiscorbutic. By the last decade of the 19th century Rose’s was being exported to the Straits Settlements, South Africa (carried by British soldiers), and the United States.
Toward the end of the 19th century, American-style mixed drinks became fashionable in England. Instead of being made with American whisky or French brandy, the English elevated the new London Dry style of gin to a socially acceptable drink. Cheap, sweetened gin was swilled by the masses, but a few bar owners took a new, readily available product and pitched it to an upwardly mobile middle class, including Royal Naval officers who had a large base just outside of Plymouth.
It is very likely that the gimlet has its origins in the English class system in the early 20th century. Everyone aboard a ship drank the rum ration, but officers could (and did) supplement their rum with other spirits. I can certainly see how the upwardly mobile dry style of gin (from Plymouth, and at Naval proof) and the fashionable Temperance-oriented Rose’s would have both found a home in an officer’s cabin — as a way to separate the officers from the “ratings”. Obviously, ice would be a luxury that no one had.
Ashore was a different matter. Officers in their clubs had easy access to fresh limes and ice and it is again likely that both ways of making this drink called a Gimlet are valid – they’re effectively the same drink but made different by the necessities of life on a ship.
So in the end, I believe that McElhone had it right. The gimlet was first a Royal Navy drink that was introduced by officers aboard ship and made from high proof (probably Plymouth) gin and Rose’s lime cordial (though today, you should make your own and avoid the fake color and corn syrup laden modern Rose’s). Once ashore though, I think the drink changed slightly to the Rickey-esque drink encountered by Admiral Gleaves. I would recommend making them both, finding the day’s Naval toast, and raising a glass.