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Holiday Drinks

The Getting of Gimlet Wisdom

December 26, 1996|KAY ELEWSKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I don't remember my first gimlet, but I do remember some of the best. My first Wyborowa gimlet was served as a prelude to pasta on a brilliant July evening, a view of San Francisco's North Beach in the distance. There were the lovingly prepared gimlets with floating lime crescents at a moonlit birthday party. There were the achingly smooth gimlets prepared from a relatively rare potato vodka, hoarded for nearly half a year in a freezer well-known to me.

And there were my father's gimlets--always poured with vodka, never gin.

"Na zdrowie," Dad would say as he served the holiday gimlets.

Consider the time he was chatting up my dear friend Peggy at a romping Polish wedding and the bartender (my brother) asked Dad to briefly take the helm. Peggy, smiling encouragingly, stepped up as Dad's first patron.

"Phil, can I get a scotch and soda?"

"Coming right up," Dad said. He twirled a plastic tumbler into the ice, poured a two-finger jet of Wyborowa vodka and a simultaneous half-ounce stream of Rose's Lime Juice into a shaker, shook, then poured the contents into the tumbler. He hovered a dripping lime over the mixture, released the juice and set his concoction firmly on the bar.

"Is that mine?" Peggy asked.

"You'll like that," Dad said and turned to embrace someone's cousin and her boyfriend. "How are you? What can I fix for you?"

"Two rum and Cokes. Thanks, Phil."

"You got it," Dad said and mixed two more vodka gimlets.

"What's this?" said the boyfriend.

"Enjoy it, enjoy it," my father said, waving them off and turning to the bride's new mother-in-law. "What would you like dear?"

"Do you know how to make a Manhattan? I haven't had one in years."

"You bet," said my father and winked at Peggy.

It's no wonder I became a gimlet ambassador to my friends.

Obviously, I'm not the first to declare that a vodka gimlet is the refined improvement of the fallen gin gimlet, which is, according to "The Bartender's Bible," "a British concoction from the Far East" and a distant cousin to the fast and popular martini. Note that gin, a 17th century Dutch doctor's potion, was adopted for its more advanced medicinal ether as the squall chaser of the Royal Navy (in a gimlet it did nicely lace a sailor's scurvy deterrent, Rose's Lime Juice, an old Scottish squeeze), while vodka is a spirit of ancient distilling from the land of ice, gypsies, amber, Chekhov and glasnost.

In its basic form, vodka offers no color, no assertive smell. Vodka instead charms with a shiver, an echo. And in the vodka gimlet it is an unreadable spirit that combines with the sharpest of citrus fruits in a simple, perfect cocktail.

In my opinion, what sophistication the fussy martini promises, the silky vodka gimlet delivers.

A Los Angeles bartender, who claimed to serve the best gimlet in civilization, once told me gimlets were the drink chosen by people with no desire to fathom the overbearing nature of a martini. Gimlets, Tommie continued, were clean and crisp, the perfect drink in hot weather. Gimlet patrons, he asserted, were unwilling to degenerate into sensory overload. They'd savor the gimlets he prepared, ordering maybe two and, very rarely, three cocktails.

Over time I've acquired a little gimlet insight of my own. Premium ingredients make an exquisite gimlet, but like a master chef or alchemist, gimlet makers must delve beyond the recipe. Superior gimlets draw on the confident combination of a few simple elements. These involve the vodka's essential Arctic-like temperature, the accomplished un-measured pour, the snap of the lime, the mambo beat shake.

Presentation, it should be said, is nothing to spill a beer over. An impossibly perfect gimlet can be delivered in a pickle jar if the setting is right. In a bar, however, true gimlet lovers request their cocktail "up." If they are in good hands, they will receive a faintly citrine, delicately viscous drink in the correct stemmed glassware. If they don't, they're likely to pass the misfired shot on to someone who needs something to chase with a beer.

Gimlets, like all vodka drinks, should be served only at night: a lamp-lit salon, neon-crowded windows, candles on the bookcase, fake fire in the fake hearth, heavy wind rattling and rain drumming on the roof.

It was late on a weekend evening--no wind, no rain--when Peggy, her friend Joe and I recently collected ourselves at a calm, murmur-filled Hollywood establishment and inadvertently discovered the best gimlet I've ever tasted.

We claimed a corner table near the invisibly staffed main bar. Servers as unctuous as loan officers roamed the pale chambers that ventilated a quiet air of foreign money.

Scanning the list of drink specials, my eyes fell upon a golden name: Luksusowa, a silky potato vodka like the one my ancestors were weaned on. It was being served in a fancy cream puff-style drink. It needed to be poured in a drink worthy of its pedigree.

"One Luksusowa gimlet, up," I told the server.

"A Luksusowa gimlet? The potato drink in a gimlet?"

"Yes," I insisted.

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