By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot Cocktail Bar! Today we’re serving up Gimlets, and their connections to early medicine, colonialism, and the rise of the multinational corporation.
A Gimlet is a classic cocktail made with gin and lime cordial. All of the suggested origins for the name have to do with scurvy. Scurvy is a disease caused by the lack of vitamin C, which is necessary for forming connective tissue; the symptoms include swollen and bleeding gums, lost teeth, and the reopening of old wounds. Horrible stuff. Since the fresh fruit and vegetables that are rich in vitamin C were hard to preserve before refrigeration, scurvy was a particular challenge for sailors during the early days of European exploration and colonization. And that colonization was big business, literally. To more effectively take advantage of the very lucrative trade from around the world now possible because of advances in sailing technology, the European powers began to set up the world’s first multinational corporations, which were granted trade monopolies; among the first were the British East India Company (founded in 1600) and the Dutch East India Company (founded in 1602). These companies, which were the first to issue stock and thus kicked off the whole stock market thing, grew to be almost quasi-governments themselves, with their own armies, currencies, and legal systems; they had the power to wage wars, found new colonies, and hold and punish prisoners. So you can see why they wouldn’t want to lose their profits because their sailors were getting sick on those long sea voyages bringing the goods back home. Fortunately, they eventually hit upon a way of preventing scurvy. Though Royal Navy physician James Lind is often credited with establishing the link between citrus fruit and scurvy prevention, he was neither the first to suggest this, nor did he really seem to understand the direct connection. Others before Lind, such as surgeon John Woodall, who stocked medical chests for the British East India Company and wrote The Surgeon’s Mate, a medical manual for ships’ surgeons, had already recommended citrus to treat scurvy. And later on it was Gilbert Blane who finally convinced the Royal Navy to adopt citrus juice as a treatment. Lind himself thought that there might be multiple causes for the disease, and recommended various dietary and environmental improvements, including citrus in a preserved form that would actually have made it ineffective. Still, Lind’s experiments on scurvy were perhaps the first controlled clinical trials in medical history.
And so it eventually became common practice to issue sailors with rations of citrus, particularly lime juice. This had sometimes already been added to the daily ration of watered-down rum given to sailors in the Royal Navy, a mixture called grog, a practice started by Admiral Edward Vernon in the 18th century. Vernon had the nickname Old Grog because of his habit of wearing a coat made out of a coarse fabric known as grogram, so called from the French gros grain meaning “coarse grain”. This nickname was then transferred to Vernon’s watered-down rum mixture, giving us grog, but the Navy wasn’t at first aware of the scurvy-busting benefits of the lime juice, which was just added to mask the bad taste of the water grown stagnant on the long ocean voyages. But eventually, the Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 required lime rations for all sailors in the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. And by the 19th century, the practice had earned British sailors the nickname of “lime-juicers” or simply “limeys”, which later came to be used of any Brit, not just sailors.
So they had a treatment for scurvy, all well and good, but preservation was still something of a problem over long voyages. Fortunately, Lauchlin Rose, a member of a prominent Scottish shipbuilding family, set up a branch of the family business provisioning ships and invented a way of preserving lime juice without the need for alcohol; and he perhaps not coincidentally patented this method in 1867, the same year as the Merchant Shipping Act. We now know this as Rose’s Lime Cordial, one of the essential ingredients in a Gimlet.
But what does all this have to do with the name of the drink? Well the first meaning of the word “gimlet” is a small drill or auger, so one idea is that the gimlet was used to tap the kegs of lime juice. The word “gimlet”, which may come ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root which means “to turn” and also gives us such words as waive, wipe, whip, and vibrate, comes into English from the Dutch word wimmel meaning “auger”. Remember the Dutch, Britain’s main rival in seafaring and trade, way back with the British and Dutch East India Companies? Well, because of ongoing trade and trade rivalry, English has quite a few words borrowed from the Dutch over the years, many related to trade and seafaring, such as halibut, pump, shore, skipper, avast, commodore, cruise, deck, smuggle, and yacht. So perhaps it’s fitting that this drink that’s so connected with British sailors may ultimately come from a Dutch word.
But there’s another theory for where the name “gimlet” comes from. According to this story, a British Navy surgeon named Thomas Gimlette, who later became Surgeon General, supposedly hit upon the idea of making the lime ration more palatable to the sailors by adding gin to it, and it is true that a gimlet is traditionally made with gin, not rum as in grog. So according to this theory, the gimlet is named after this Dr. Thomas D. Gimlette; that’s the story in the Royal Navy’s own dictionary of naval slang, known as Covey Crump, named after Royal Navy Commander A. Covey-Crump who first compiled it in the 1950s, a useful resource for anyone interested in unusual slang.
Whether or not the Dr. Gimlette story is true, gin is certainly an essential part of the gimlet, and once again, we have the Dutch to thank, both for the gin itself and for its name. Gin developed from the earlier spirit known as genever, a liquor flavoured with juniper berries that was invented in the Netherlands. Supposedly the English started to refer to this drink as “Dutch courage” during the Thirty Years’ War, either in reference to its warming effects or somewhat derisively as the source of the bravery of the Dutch soldiers. In any case, it was eventually imported to Britain, thanks in part to Dutch-born William of Orange who came to be William III of England in the late 17th century. And this kicked off the Gin Craze in England, with the “ruinous new drink” being depicted as displacing “wholesome British beer”, most famously in William Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street. And as for the name “gin”, it’s a shortening of genever, which is the Dutch word for juniper, but because of the similar sound it was Anglicized as Geneva, like the Swiss city to which it is not otherwise related--but don’t worry, the city Geneva will come up in its own right later on.
But gin is involved in this story in another way, too–in connection with another attempted cure for scurvy. English theologian and chemist Joseph Priestley, most famous for discovering oxygen, also invented soda water, which he erroneously thought might be a treatment for scurvy, so he sent it along on James Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas. Though it didn’t pan out as a cure for scurvy, it did have a role to play in dealing with the other major disease colonial trading powers like Britain and the Netherlands have to deal with: malaria. In the 17th century, the Spanish had learned that the Quechua people of Peru used the bark of the cinchona tree to treat malaria–the Quechua word for bark being kina whence the word “quinine” (another etymology for you!); and eventually the Dutch, yes them again, acquired seeds of the cinchona tree and were the first to cultivate it outside Peru in their colony in Java, thus ensuring a steady supply of the quinine powder which had become crucial to European countries wanting to maintain their ever-so-profitable tropical colonies. Now this is all a bit complicated, but back to soda water, which Priestley failed to capitalize on. Instead, another man did–a man who had made his fortune as a jeweller in Geneva— told you Geneva would actually come back into this. This man, Jacob Schweppe, yes that Schweppe, figured out a way of mass-producing carbonated mineral water, based on Priestley’s earlier work, thus founding the soft drink industry. Erasmus Darwin, physician, grandfather of evolutionist Charles, and along with Schweppe a key member of the Lunar Society, a group of industrialists and scientists who were the driving force behind the English Industrial Revolution, promoted Schweppe’s carbonated mineral water for its health-giving effects. And it was just the thing for the malaria problem in the colonies, since the British soldiers in India took to mixing the very bitter quinine powder with sugary carbonated water and a bit of gin, to make it go down more smoothly. Problem solved, and eventually a business man named Erasmus Bond--no, not Erasmus Darwin: Bond, Erasmus Bond--marketed the first tonic water with quinine already mixed in, in 1858--the very year Britain took direct control over India after the Sepoy Mutiny led to the dissolution of the British East India Company. And shortly thereafter the Schweppe’s company began producing their own tonic water, marketed specifically for the British in India. So a treatment for malaria and the classic cocktail the Gin & Tonic, all thanks to a failed treatment for scurvy, and all a byproduct of British colonialism.
But back to the cocktail we started with, the gimlet, there’s another possible reason that this name for a drilling tool was applied to the drink. It might be a metaphor based on the penetrating effects of the drink. The word gimlet was frequently used figuratively in this way, particularly in the expression “gimlet-eyed” which first appears in the 18th century to refer to someone who has a squinting or piercing gaze. One particularly famous person who had the nickname “Old Gimlet Eye” (as well as “The Fighting Quaker”) was the amazingly-named Smedley Darlington Butler, major general in the United States Marine Corp in the early part of the 20th century. He was particularly involved in activities in tropical locales such as the Caribbean and Central and South America, and incidentally took care to ensure his troops took quinine to prevent malaria, which later on became something of a problem for the US military in WWII when they lost control of territories which produced it. Notably, Butler was involved in the so-called Banana Wars, a series of military interventions in the Caribbean and Central America to protect US business interests, particularly those of fruit-producing companies, in those regions. He would later become outspokenly critical of American imperialism and business interests driving US foreign policies, saying that he had been turned into “a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism”. He is also particularly famous for exposing the so-called Business Plot, an alleged fascist plan to overthrow the US government bankrolled by some very major American businessmen. Though the true extent of this plot, whether it was exaggerated, a hoax, or genuinely conceived, has never been fully established, it still goes to show the potentially ominous power of business joined with imperialism–even if those forces also gave us cocktails such as the gimlet and the gin and tonic. Think about that as you enjoy your drink.
Today, of course, I’m making a Gimlet. You can choose your favourite gin–but I’m going to use Bombay Sapphire, since it evokes the theme of Colonialism in this story. Now, Rose’s Lime Cordial has changed since the original product was introduced, so some people prefer to make their own lime cordial–but since I’ve been talking about the history of the brand, I’m going to use it. So, to a shaker filled with ice, add 2 ounces of gin and 1 ounce of Rose’s Lime; shake, and strain into a cocktail glass. Serve, and congratulate yourself on saving your guest from scurvy.
I’ll be back soon with more etymological explorations and cultural connections, so please subscribe to this channel; you can also sign up for email notifications of new videos in the description below. If you have comments or questions, I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comment section; you can also read more of my thoughts on my blog at alliterative.net.