It was during the great mid-century cocktail revival that young Ian Fleming came into his own as the gadabout and Bond vivant we know him as. And it’s likely that, as a man heavily influenced not just by British adventure writers like John Buchan, but also American detective novel writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, creator of the Philip Marlowe series and one of Fleming’s literary icons (Fleming even interviewed him for the BBC in 1958; the interview is the only known recording of Chandler’s voice, which the BBC radio producers described as “”slurred with whisky”), their drinking habits and those of their characters would have rubbed off on Commander Fleming. In the 2013 novel The Ian Fleming Files: Operation Parsifal by Damian Stevenson, a based-on-real-events novel about Fleming himself having wartime adventures that would inspire the adventures of James Bond, Fleming meets with his aging mentor Alfred Dillwyn “Dilly” Knox, who takes Fleming to The Eight Belles Pub.
“I’d prefer a gimlet,” said Fleming, thirstily eyeballing the bar.
“They don’t know how to make them here,” Dilly murmured. “I ordered one once and they mixed lemon juice and gin with sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hands down.”
That particular recipe for a gimlet, and in fact much of what Dilly says to Fleming, is Damian Stevenson paying homage to Raymond Chandler. As Chandler wrote in his 1953 novel The Long Goodbye:
We sat in a corner of the bar at Victor’s and drank gimlets. “They don’t know how to make them here,” he said. “What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.”
The gimlet, which was invented when British Naval officers mixed their daily dose of Rose’s Lime Juice with gin (non-officers mixed it with their rum and invented the first margarita), never really caught on in the United States the way the Martini did, but Raymond Chandler’s iconic hardboiled private eye, Philip Marlowe, enjoyed them (at least until death and misery spoiled his taste for the drink). But just as James Bond’s Vespers, shaken martinis, and vodka Martinis cause debate, so too does Chandler’s recipe for a gimlet. His half-and-half proportions were likely because they were drinking rot gut gin. A saner ratio:
2 oz. Plymouth Gin
1 oz. Rose’s Lime Juice.
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.
Just about everyone will tell you it has to be Rose’s, otherwise it is not a gimlet. As the 1954 Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts wrote, “A true Gimlet must be made with Rose’s bottled lime juice, which vanished like nylons during the war but is now seen around again.” However, it’s likely that Rose’s Lime today is likely nothing like it was when it was invented 1867 by Lauchlan Rose as a way to preserve limes for use in the British Royal Navy. Thus, despite people parroting common knowledge, giving a gimlet made with fresh squeezed lime juice is perfectly acceptable as far as I’m concerned.
The Merchant Shipping Act, also of 1867, required all Navy vessels to provide a daily lime ration to sailors to prevent scurvy, a habit that earned British sailors the nickname “limeys.” Carrying Rose’s Lime Juice was a lot easier than hauling fresh limes around. Unfortunately, Rose’s Lime Juice, and limes in general, were a terrible protection from scurvy. It was believed at the time that acidity was what kept you from getting scurvy, and so any sufficiently acidic fruit would do. This belief came about because in the mid-1700s, sailors who dosed their ration of grog (rum and water) with juice from citrus fruit were substantially healthier than other soldiers. This phenomenon was eventually attributed to the acidity of the fruit. Because the British Navy had much easier access to limes than they did oranges or lemons, limes became the go-to — and didn’t do much of anything, especially once they had been processed into commercial lime juice. Because it wasn’t the acidity that was staving scurvy outbreaks; it was the vitamin C, and limes have precious little vitamin C. Rose’s Lime had even less.
So if you’re looking to stave off scurvy, keep dosing your grog with lemon and orange. But if you are just looking to sit in a corner booth in an old bar and enjoy a drink while you puzzle out the strands of a particularly convoluted case, the gimlet is there for you. And if I’m going to have a gimlet — and I’m going to, believe me — I also prefer to drink it under the same circumstances Marlowe’s doomed friend Terry Lennox prefers:
I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that’s wonderful.”