|Zested limes ready to be juiced|
I had a conversation/debate around 2005 about how to make a classic Gin Gimlet. We focused on Rose’s Sweetened Preserved Lime Juice/ Cordial vs. Fresh Lime Juice. While this seems like an inane debate, it has some important historical, as well as tasteful, implications.
I was in a bit of a dilemma with my feeling that, historically, lime cordial was more likely the preferred or available ingredient, but fresh was in. Also, Rose’s style cordial was made with high fructose corn syrup, food coloring and other less than palatable ingredients which made that choice even more difficult. My interest was now piqued as to the origins of the gimlet and lime cordial, how a classic Gimlet should or, normally, would be be made, what lime cordial was and its origins and if there even was a definitive answer to any of this.
While I love fresh lime, it just doesn’t make a Gimlet for me. Familiarity is generally what we base our convictions on, and most people are familiar with Rose’s. But it seems to go against our new convictions of using high quality, crafted or fresh ingredients in our food and cocktails. And in the U.S. there aren’t really any quality alternatives to Rose’s brand lime juice.
There are huge differences between fresh lime juice and lime juice cordial. The taste of preserved lime juice cordial is distinctly different than fresh lime juice and has a similar taste to that of lime curd or lime marmalade (Rose’s has made lime marmalade since 1865).
But how to get that lime curd flavor we want (or many of us want), without the high fructose corn syrup and the brown colored juice? The only alternative was to try to make it myself.
There is ample historical evidence for the case that Rose’s style cordial was the ingredient of choice in Gimlets around the world, but there isn’t really a definitive answer or “smoking gun” for the invention of the Gimlet or the first ingredients and ratios.
The origins of the Gimlet lie, rather, in the general time line of history from the use of lime juice in the Royal Navy as a preventative and cure for scurvy, the attempts to preserve lime juice for future use, the attempts to make it both palatable to the sailors (who were required to drink it) and to the general public and their growing tastes for non-alcoholic beverages and mixers in England in the later 19th century, and, finally, that gin was the spirit of choice among the officer class whether on land or aboard ship.
Citrus cordials and sodas ( lemon squash, bitter lemon soda, tonic water, etc..) became quite popular and were natural mixers with spirits during the 19th century.
Plymouth Navy Strength (114 proof) gin was the gin of the Royal Navy from the early 19th century onward, (Black Friars Distillery, Plymouth, 1793). It was produced at that strength for the Navy, not in small part, because if it was spilled on gun powder during battle, the powder would still flame, and the cannon could still be fired..(A real example of Dutch Courage at work!)… Gin would also be the choice at officers clubs and bases around the world.
But it really isn’t cut and dried that a Gimlet would never be ordered with fresh lime. Gin yes, but what kind of lime? There is ample evidence to show that it was made with fresh lime as well as lime cordial, but that lime cordial was something that was always around and could be counted on when fresh limes weren’t available.
For example, at an officers club in Bombay or Hong Kong the bartender might use gin, fresh lime and sugar, or preserved lime cordial, depending on availability, but both might be called a Gimlet. This would be a common occurrence in Royal Navy, Army, and government outposts around the world. In lieu of fresh mixers, a bottle of lime cordial could always be counted on and would be a common denominator in bars around the British Empire.
|Royal Navy Lime Juice Bottle early 19th Century (British Military Bottles)|
Up until the late 18th century there was no real scientific data on anti-scorubics (anti scurvy). The scientific method of studies were not really used until we reach the early 19th century, so the use of citrus (lemons or limes) was sometimes used on just anecdotal evidence. Use of citrus, or other remedies, depended on the captain of the ship. There was no mandate or general consensus that citrus would ward off scurvy, and getting sailors to drink the usually noxious oxidized lime juice was also a difficult task.
But in 1747, British Dr. James Lind experimented with lemon juice on some of his men suffering from scurvy that pointed strongly to the use of citrus as a “medicine”. It still took until 1795 for the British Navy to mandate the use of lemon juice on board naval ships and not until 1867 with the general Merchant Shipping Act was the use of citrus on all British commercial shipping mandated.
Lime or lemon juice was rarely, if ever, fresh aboard ship. Lime juice was preserved in several ways, most common being the addition of spirits and sugar as a preservative and to make it somewhat more palatable. It was usually stored in large bottles, not wooden casks.
Other methods were making a lime concentrate or syrup, called a rob, by cooking the juice at low heat in a double boiler and evaporating the excess water until it was oily at room temperature and thick when chilled. Lemons or limes were used.
By the 1840’s, though, limes essentially replaced lemons (there was not much of a distinction back then) because of the influence of British lime growers in the Caribbean and the sporadic sources of lemons from the Mediterranean due to war or instability. Unknown, though, was that lemons were a far more effective anti-scorubic than limes.
This brings us up to commercially produced preserved lime juice cordial and Lachlan Rose and the likely origins of the modern dry gin gimlet. Rose worked on a method of preserving lime juice, without the use of spirits, for use in the military and merchant marine with an eye on the home market in England its the growing in taste for lemon and lime soft drinks, sodas, and mixers. It was also a product that could be used by the Royal Army or other government and commercial posts around the British Empire.
One of Rose’s ideas was making his lime juice actually palatable and tasty, as well as preserved. For example, he discovered that juice, more often than not, was made from limes that had fallen onto the ground and begun to decompose, rather than ripe, freshly picked limes. (Birmingham Daily Post, 1870)
It was almost always the case that “regular” lime juice was musty and foul to begin with. Rose was one of the first to ensure that the limes his company juiced would be picked from the trees. Something we think would be obvious today, but had to be directed at that time.
The method of preservation that he patented used a version of sulfites. He patented the use of sulfurous gas and acid to treat the lime juice. Rose’s still contains metabisulfate and sulfites are used today as a preservative in much of the worlds wine.
Rose also looked to the large potential commercial market for selling his lime juice on an even larger scale and was very successful marketing his flagship product, using distinctive bottling to capture the consumers eye and business. Slews of competitors popped up, copying even Rose’s distinctive bottle shape and style.
|Rose’s Lime bottle found in Boer War dump (Antique Bottles)|
The popularity of this style of lime cordial around the British Empire was certain. But can we say that this the classic ingredient in a gin gimlet?
I think we can surely say it was, but we have to be careful to not be dogmatic about things such as cocktail recipes, or we take the fun and truth out of them. Exceptions always exist and people mold recipes to their own tastes over time.
The first recorded recipe for the gimlet, according to Dave Wondrich, was in Harry MacElhone’s Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails from the early 1920’s. Gary Regan throws his hat in the ring voting for Rose’s as “the ingredient that defines the drink..” The Savoy Cocktail Book lists Rose’s in it’s Gimlet, but not in its Gimblet. However, Embury writes in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks that a Gimlet has fresh lime juice and often it was made in the US with fresh lime. Rose’s began exporting to the US in 1901
There are also many other issues at hand when discussing cocktail history. Ratios, ice, technique, tools, glassware, and other issues can make two completely different cocktails with the same ingredients. Again these are things that almost always make definitive answers to what a cocktail is or was nearly impossible and is why I generally leave that dogma at the door and make room for legitimate variations on the same theme.
In the end, drinks should be made to your own personal tastes. In the case of the Gimlet, I prefer much more gin to lime. I enjoy the taste of good gin, and want the gin to stand out and the lime to simply enhance it.
The gin is like the nucleus of an atom and the cordial like it’s electron…..
Now my rationale and recipe for Preserved Lime Cordial.
|Lime zest, limes, zested limes|
I experimented, but wanted to stay as simple as I could. I wanted it to be real and impart the lime curd flavor I was looking for and be as natural as possible. I studied a few old 19th century recipes for cordials and syrups in England. I looked at making a “rob” (the cooked citrus juice used on board some Royal Navy ships).
I settled on the simple combination of fresh, strained lime juice and white cane sugar and lime zest to add the lime taste and aromas. I also tried different methods of heating this syrup and infusing the lime oils.
Heating the cordial helps in its preserving, concentrating, and water evaporation. Heating it too high will caramelize it and bring flavors that mar the lime taste.
|Lime Zest steeping|
Bring juice and dissolved sugar slowly to 180 degrees. Stir this often.
Use a candy thermometer to gauge your temperatures.
Allow it to rest and come to room temperature, add the zest. Keep covered. Allow to steep for several hours or up to one day and then strain.
Store in non-reactive containers (glass bottles are best)
This will last for months and even a year or longer stored in your fridge and never discolors like Rose’s does. I have never had it go bad. If you like it more tart, add less sugar or vice versa.