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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: March 30, 2015

The demise of the classic gimlet

Today’s mixologists unnecessarily abhor the use of the gimlet’s classic ingredient, Rose’s Lime Juice, the so-called offending element that has put this drink nearly at death’s door in the 21st century.

Written by: John Golden

Editor’s note: This post previously stated that Portland Hunt & Alpine Club did not carry Rose’s, which was incorrect. The post has been update with correct information.

I’m an avowed gimlet drinker.

The gimlet  was created by the English in the 1930s, many years after the invention of concentrated lime juice developed by  Lachlan Rose in 1867.  It’s the concentrated preserved lime juice that gives the drink its smooth finish and characteristic pucker — a combination of sweet and sour, with an unmistakable, slightly funky aftertaste.

Today’s mixologists, however, think otherwise. And modern methods have absolutely massacred the classic gimlet to the point that it’s really nothing more than a lime-based Tom Collins.

But here’s the rub. Rose’s is made with high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient that’s so politically incorrect that modern mixologists deplore its use. Their replacement is to mix simple syrup with fresh lime juice, a kind of Mother Hubbard approach that bears no characteristic resemblance to the qualities of a classic gimlet.  Have the offending properties of sugar been reduced?  Not at all: both contain about 2 grams of sugar per serving.

Preparations for the classic gimlet

Preparations for the classic gimlet

Craft cocktails nowadays rely on locally available ingredients, sometimes to the point of absurdity.  House-made bitters are proudly used at fashionable craft bars. Some bar keeps will even make their own tomato juice from heirloom tomatoes to use in a Bloody Mary. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s like using fresh tuna in a tuna salad sandwich instead of the canned variety. Not the same flavor profile at all.

Yet if bartenders are so concerned about using only natural products, then then why not create their own lime cordial and keep the old-style properties of a gimlet intact? This would be simple syrup infused with lime essence or zest that’s’ allowed to steep for days. It would deliver the classic pucker that’s not achieved with fresh lime juice.  Otherwise it’s not much better than a limeade spiked with liquor.

This debate has been going on for years.  I first encountered the “new” gimlet at New York’s Daniel Restaurant in the mid-1990s. It had just opened in the old Le Cirque space at 65th Street and Park Avenue.  It was considered the finest French restaurant in the country. I sat down to dinner with friends, ordered my vodka gimlet and after the first sip I was shocked to be drinking something that tasted like a street side glass of limeade. When I inquired, the captain said that the bar only uses fresh lime juice in its gimlet mix and has their own special blend of simple syrup, confectioner’s sugar and lime juice.  Since then it’s become increasingly difficult to get the old-style drink.

Some bars still make it the old-fashioned way. In Portland, a perfect gimlet is found at Back Bay Grill, Caiola’s, Five-Fifty Five, Petite Jacqueline, Lolita, Bramhall and Fore Street, who stashes away a bottle of Rose’s in their cooler for those who want the real thing. Some places add fresh lime juice in addition to the Rose’s.  So when I order my drink I always specify, “No fresh lime juice, please.”

My vodka gimlet bar at home

My vodka gimlet bar at home

The solution would be for all bar keeps — high-brow and otherwise — to offer both versions. Though I could just see the frown of disdain coming from those who wouldn’t stoop to touch a bottle of Rose’s. But I’ve been known to bring my own bottle of it when I go to a restaurant that I know doesn’t stock the stuff.  I ask for a vodka on the rocks and secretly pour my few drops of Rose’s into the glass as the bartender looks the other way.

At my urging, many establishments — including the venerable Portland Hunt & Alpine Club and Sur-Lie, have agreed to stock Rose’s Lime Juice, and I appreciate their efforts. My second-choice cocktail, however, is the Negroni, which Hunt & Alpine makes superbly. It’s where the goodness of ingredients relies on the quality of the sweet vermouth supporting gin or vodka and Campari. Lolita also makes a terrific one using Carpano Antica, a beautifully made sweet Italian vermouth.

Though I’ve yet to make my own lime cordial, there are plenty of commercial alternatives available.  Sometimes you can find the concentrated lime juice from the West Indies, where it’s the essential ingredient in lots of rum cocktails.  Otherwise the two brands available here are Rose’s and Master of Mixes Sweetened Lime Juice, which is generally available at Shaw’s (they don’t stock Rose’s).  There’s a third alternative—an all-natural clarified lime juice made by Powell and Mahoney, makers of natural cocktail-mix ingredients. It’s sold at Whole Foods.  On the back of the bottle they offer a recipe for a gimlet that calls for another Powell and Mahoney product, Old Ballycastle Ginger.  I tried it the other day and liked it.

Ultimately I still prefer the much maligned Rose’s Lime Juice.  And here is my recipe for a classic gimlet.

Classic gimlet

Into a cocktail glass or stemmed martini glass pour in as much vodka or gin as you like (as opposed to the  1.5 ounce shot poured at most bars) and stir in enough Rose’s until it has  a slight tinge of green. Shake or stir, preferably shaken well in a cocktail mixer and poured either straight up or over fresh ice into an old-fashioned glass.  You can also grate some fresh lime zest into it and maybe dry a drop of Ballycastle ginger for something different.

NOTE: Sometimes you’ll see a bottle of Rose’s that’s turned a dark brown because it’s maderized or spoiled.  This should be avoided.  It should always be stored refrigerated.

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