The history of the 'Gimlet'

This post is dedicated to the Gimlet. A classic gin cocktail, firm favourite of mine and the inspiration for our 2nd medicinal inspired drink at the recent distillers table session.
Like most origin stories there is always plenty of ‘hear say’ and differing of options, but here are the 3 main stages of the drinks creation as I believe it.
Scurvy is a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C. Initially it presents with fatigue, spots on the skin and bleeding and as it advances, there can be yellow skin, fever and finally death...
It was at one time it was common among sailors and others aboard ships who were at sea longer than fruit and vegetables could be stored (they lived on salted meats and dried grains). It was one of the major limiting factors of marine travel, often killing large numbers of the passengers and crew on long-distance voyages. Between 1500 and 1800, it has been estimated that scurvy killed at least two million sailors!
In 1740, citrus juice (usually lemon or lime) was added to the traditional daily ration of watered-down rum known as grog, to hide the water’s disgusting taste. Although they didn’t know the reason at the time, these sailors were healthier than the rest of the navy because of the daily dose of vitamin C they received.
Throughout this period sailors and naval surgeons were increasingly convinced that citrus fruit could cure scurvy, but the classically trained physicians who ran the medical establishment dismissed this as mere anecdote as it didn’t conform to the current theories of the disease.
Then in March 1795, came some astonishing news. A ship fully supplied with lemon juice had arrived in India after a four-month voyage without a trace of scurvy and with a crew that was healthier than when they set out. It was the proof the medics needed and the effect was almost immediate. Fleet commanders clamored to be supplied with lemon juice and by June the Admiralty acknowledged the demand and agreed that lemon juice should be issued as a daily ration to the crews of all warships.
It took a few years before the method of distribution had been perfected and the supply of the huge quantities required had been secured. But by 1800, the system was in place and fully functioning. This led to remarkable health improvements among the sailors and is consequently believed to have played a critical part in gaining the advantage against enemies who had yet to introduce the measures.
In 1867 Lauchlin Rose patented a method to preserve citrus juice without alcohol, creating a concentrated drink known as Rose’s lime juice cordial. In the same year the ‘Merchant Shipping Act’ was established, requiring all ships of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy to provide a daily citrus ration to sailors to prevent scurvy. The product became intrinsically linked, creating the nickname “limey”, first for British sailors, then for English immigrants within the former British colonies, and finally, in old American slang, all British people.
West Indian limes had replaced lemons at this point because they were more easily obtained from Britain’s Caribbean colonies and were believed to be more effective because they were more acidic. It was the acid, not the (then-unknown) Vitamin C that they believed was the cure to scurvy.
Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette (served 1879 – 1913) is cited by some as the namesake of this drink. Acting as a doctor to his shipmates it is alleged, that he administered gin with the lime juice in order to mask the sour taste and help them swallow the lime ‘anti-scurvy medication’. The British sailors, though – unlike their superior Naval officers – only had rum rations until this point. Seeing this an opportunity to improve their alcohol ration, they demanded extra Plymouth dry gin to be shipped on for them as well, or they would refuse the lime medication.
(Alternatively some believe the cocktail may have been named after a small hand-held drill of the same name. Used for boring holes, and would have been used on Royal Navy ships around this time.)
The cocktail was featured in Harry Craddock’s famous, 1930 ‘The Savoy Cocktail Book’, where he offered the advice that the drink “can be iced if desired.” But the Gimlet rose to major popularity across British society after it was mentioned in the 1953 Raymond Chandler novel ‘The Long Goodbye’. The main character, Marlowe, said, “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else.”


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