July 23, 2015


July 23 (1888) is the birthday of American novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler whose 1954 novel The Long Goodbye brought gimlets into the limelight. But the full story of this citrus cocktail began more than 300 years earlier.

n. a cocktail, usually consisting of gin and lime juice
Oxford English Dictionary

One widely held theory about the origin of this drink is that it was invented by Sir Thomas Gimlette of the British Royal Navy as a way to combat scurvy. [I
t should be noted that another competing theory on the origin of gimlet is that it comes from the name of the tool used to bore holes in the barrels of lime juice on nineteenth-century ships.]

If you ever find yourself traveling at sea for years at a time, it is a good idea to avoid developing scurvy. What with the tooth and nail loss, the depression and the skin spots, the bleeding membranes and sunken eyes, and the non-stop diarrhea and the dying, it is in your best interest to heal thyself. Hippocrates first described scurvy around 400 BC. The Crusaders died from it in the thirteenth century, as did the merchants, sailors, and other scallywags of history who spent more time aboard ships than perishable fruits and vegetables could survive. Scurvy is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, whose chemical name (ascorbic acid) comes from the Latin name for scurvy—

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, British doctors had pretty well figured out that it was the acid from citrus fruit that scurvy-ridden sailors were lacking. It also did not help that many undernourished seamen were fond of eating the fat that was scrubbed from ships’ copper pans, the chemical reaction of which prevented the absorption of vitamins. James Cook subsequently outlawed this practice during his circumnavigation of the globe.

As early as 1614, the Surgeon General of the East India Company recommended fresh food as a cure—particularly oranges, lemons, and limes—and Scottish surgeon James Lind offered formal proof that it worked in 1747. But it would take the Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 to require all ships of the British military and merchant fleet to provide sailors with a regular dollop of lime juice—leading to the nickname “limey” for English immigrants in the early British colonies. What made this possible was a now-ubiquitous cocktail mixer. By the time the act was passed, Lauchlin Rose had patented a method for preserving citrus juice in a sugar syrup without alcohol—Rose’s Lime Juice. Unfortunately, it tasted like bilgewater.

All of which leads us to the beloved Dr. Thomas Gimlette, who is believed to have joined the Royal Navy in 1879. It took him eleven years, but Gimlette finally hit on a solution for encouraging sailors to drink their daily dose of lime juice—adding gin. The now infamous surgeon cum mixologist was subsequently knighted and eventually retired as the British Surgeon General in 1913.

gimlet began to rise in popularity in the 1920s. It also developed an artistic cult following. Raymond Chandler allegedly revised portions of his 1953 novel The Long Goodbye to include mentions of the gimlet after he and his wife discovered it on a return trip from England aboard the RMS Mauretania. Chandler had his enigmatic private eye Philip Marlowe share a few with a war-scarred Terry Lenox in a darkened bar:

“The bartender set the drink in front of me. With the lime juice it has a sort of pale greenish yellowish misty look. I tasted it. It was both sweet and sharp at the same time.”

Over the years, the
gimlet has been created with varying amounts of lime juice, and today the gin is often replaced with vodka. Indeed, legendary cross-dresser and B-list movie director Ed Wood was so fond of a vodka gimlet that he spelled it backward to form his literary pseudonyms—Telmig Akdov and Akdov Telmig. But most limeys will insist (and Raymond Chandler would agree) that there’s only one proper way to mix a proper gimlet, as Terry Lenox explains to Philip Marlowe:

“A real Gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats Martinis hollow.”