Case Study | Building a Better Mixer
By TOBY CECCHINI
The true gimlet, complete with homemade lime cordial (left). Photography by Joe Ray, arrangement by Toby Cecchini.
It’s really annoying the crap out of me that NYTimes only allows 20 free reads per month and then you have to pay. So in protest, I’ve copied-and-pasted lock stock and smoking barrel one of Toby Cecchini’s articles from this month’s T Magazine (on building a better mixer) which I thought you might enjoy reading but might not get to read since you might have maxed out your 20 free reads per month (this is 19/20 for me grumble grumble).
Anyway, they do say the key to a good cocktail is in the mixer (others say ice, others say the base liquour makes or breaks it, they’re all right to some degree), you don’t want something that tastes artificial that you bought for $2.99 at the store. So here’s a lesson in making one of my favourite mixers: Lime Cordial. A key ingredient in one of my favourite drinks: Gimlets. But if you’re truly in a rush, I’m not averse to Rose’s lime cordial the way Toby seems to be, so do give it a go.
When you entreat a conscientious bartender to make you a gimlet these days, he frequently does something that is at once resolutely incorrect and completely forgivable: he makes you a drink containing gin, simple syrup and fresh lime juice. I’ve done it many times myself. Depending on whom you talk to, that might be a type of sour or it might be a type of fix, but it almost certainly is not a gimlet. A proper gimlet is made with lime cordial. And what most of the world knows as lime cordial is Rose’s, that dusty, fluorescent yellow-green bottle in the drinks section of your supermarket. I am willing to bet that at some point in its very long history Mr. Lauchlin Rose’s Cordial Mixer Lime Juice may have been a bracing product, redolent of the fruit that it promises. Sadly, its current incarnation is to limes as Spam is to steak. It tastes of the high-fructose corn syrup, stabilizers and various chemicals that give it its cesium-like shelf life, which is all fine for Cadbury, which has owned the brand since 1981, but is bitter gruel for someone trying to tap into the sublimity of a true gimlet. For that, as for many such rich rewards, you’ve got to make your own.
Lime cordial just sounds so nice that it seemed there must be some simple, old-timey way to make it as fine as it is pleasant to the ear. I had to admit, however, that after more than two decades tending bar I couldn’t actually tell you what a real cordial is, or should be. Some type of preserved syrup that extracts the tartness of the juice and the keen aromatic bitterness of the peel — and candies or cures those attributes, maybe by heating? — would be my guess.
It turns out that lime cordial was originally concocted with a base of rum, to dose British sailors with a daily measure of citrus to prevent scurvy. (The most likely attribution for the gimlet’s name is the piercing tool used to bore holes.) It is not fresh lime, nor is it meant to be; you cannot make a proper gimlet without lime cordial any more than you could substitute lime cordial for fresh lime juice in a daiquiri or margarita. Those could, however, make a rum or tequila gimlet. This duality so fascinated me that I had to begin experimenting to cobble a true lime cordial. Once I did, it led me into other citrus versions, given the preponderance of late winter offerings. I concocted a pomelo/lemon cordial and also a sour orange/kumquat/grapefruit version. My current favorite is a straight lime with a pound or more of fresh ground ginger thrown into the mix: unspeakably fine. These also make a marvelous tonic for non-imbibers and children, particularly in soda.
I first tried my own intuitive versions, zesting and juicing limes and lemons and boiling them up, both together and separately, with water and sugar in varying proportions, with and without the superfluous tartaric and citric acid powders many recipes prescribe. These wildly different attempts were so many factors of excellence better than commercial lime cordial that I cursed myself for never having tried this before. I continued experimenting and reading until I found the Web site of one Todd Appel, a veteran bartender and cocktail consultant in Chicago who has extensively researched and experimented with the lime cordial. Where I had been wondering if the juice should be included or excluded, Appel had the most radical approach of any I’d encountered; he banishes water from the formula entirely, using only peel, juice and sugar in an effort to recreate what he thinks is a historically accurate approximation of a sailor’s ration. He heats them together and introduces the peel for only 15 minutes as it cools, citing the extreme bitterness of the zest when left too long.
While undertaking his recipe, however, I veered off on an experimental tangent that led me to what I found to be the best version yet. I divided my batches and did one on the stove, as per his recipe, and the other I didn’t cook at all, just stirred the sugar into the juice until it dissolved, added in the peels (which I had removed with a vegetable peeler), and set it in the fridge to macerate overnight, to strain off the next day. After all, citrus juice effectively “cooks” proteins in ceviches, so why not try the same treatment here?
I have found that cordials are initially a bit cowlick-y, sticking out here and there: kind of tart, kind of sweet, a bit bitter, and all a touch in disarray. But giving them 24 hours to mellow or cure in the refrigerator somehow brings them into harmony. I didn’t expect much of this uncooked batch, but after a day, while the cooked one was clearly tastier and more intense than any I’d yet made, the uncooked batch was mind-boggling: a dense, sweet syrup with a magnified fresh lime aroma and the perfect tart zip. One friend described it as being “like excellent lime candy.”
In the field test, the gimlet made from it is a thing so completely different from your concept of this drink that it might create for you, as it has for me, a recurring sense memory that nags you if you don’t have a batch made. The medicinal rigor of the gin against the agrodolce tang of the cordial is a thing for which Unesco needs to create a new category of world heritage. Charles Baker, the famous bon vivant, wrote in 1939 of it in his Gentleman’s Companion: “Throughout the whole swing of the Far East, starting with Bombay — down the Malabar Coast to Colombo; to Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, the gimlet is just as well known as our martini here.” This was once a big-deal drink, and now it is again blessedly clear why. It’s one of the few short drinks that you’d crave in the torpor of summer.
As for its proper makeup, being of a simplicity so foursquare it could be Amish, the gimlet is one of those drinks whose recipe is truly but a suggestion. In Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” the dilapidated playboy Terry Lennox, schooling Philip Marlowe in the drink, put it at equal parts: “What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin 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 majority of recipes now have it at 2:1, but I’m going to make it even simpler: find your own taste here. Different gins make for different balancing points. Fill a double rocks glass with cracked ice and pour in three ounces of gin. Start with however much cordial you think you might like — and lowball it; you can always add more. When you reach your sugar threshold, squeeze two fat lime wedges into it, stir it and settle in. Welcome back to the gimlet; never let it go away again.
RAW LIME CORDIAL
18 limes, room temperature, very ripe, well puffed and heavy
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 lb fresh ginger (optional)
Wash limes in a sinkful of warm water, scrubbing with your hands or a vegetable brush, and let them dry them on a dish towel. Peel them with a vegetable peeler, removing as little of the underlying white pith as possible. To begin each, it’s helpful to cut the polar ends off, where the stem attaches and opposite. This should produce about 140 grams of peels.
Cut limes in half and juice them. This should produce about 2 1/2 cups of juice.
In a non-reactive, coverable container, add sugar to juice and stir until fully dissolved, 3 to 5 minutes. Crush peels up in handfuls to release the oils as you add them into the juice mix. Stir a bit to initiate extraction of the oils. (If you’re making a ginger version, wash the ginger, then shred it in a blender or food processor (no need to peel it), employing some of the lime juice to allow it to liquefy, and add it into the lime mixture, stirring well.) Cover and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. When ready, strain the cordial off from the peels in a fine mesh strainer or chinoise. Funnel cordial into covered container or cappable bottle and return to refrigerator for another day, to cure, before using. Makes roughly 1 liter.