From Behind the Bar: On Lime Cordial and Naval Tradition


About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.

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What I'm Drinking: Brooklyn Pennant Ale (Bottled) Jameson Irish Whiskey (Shot)

My father is a font of folksy wisdom. No matter what the occasion, he has an aphorism that sums things up viscerally, and in a way that is both relatively vulgar and unequivocally correct. You're not just useless, you're useless as tits on a boar hog. You have a gripe? That and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee. These are literally the only of his phrases I know that are fit for print, but he has hundreds, and continually surprises me with how often and aptly they apply. When I was young, though, I thought I was a lot smarter than any quote my old man could conjure up.

In 1990, I surprised everyone who had ever known me and signed on the dotted line to join the United States Navy. Not out of some kind of patriotic obligation. Not to see the world. I signed up because a recruiter told me that I could fly across the country on the government's dime, hitting the reset-button on a life that hadn't really started in the first place.

I learned many things during my time in the Service, the biggest being that, when it comes to pithy sayings, my Dad has nothing on the US Navy. Every other phrase was, "Haze Grey and Underway," or "If it don't move, paint it." The Navy is steeped in history, and has always had its own vocabulary. "Left" can't just be left, it has to be port. A wall is a bulkhead, and a stairway is always a "ladder." You aren't expected to get out of someone's way, you must "make a hole." The Navy is rife with tradition, superstition, and the unshakable conviction that repetition of a phrase is enough to make it universally true.

My contrary nature and a bum ankle put an end to my naval career, but some part of that tradition has always stuck with me. While I am not superstitious by nature, I will never tolerate the lighting of a cigarette off of a candle (which kills a sailor, you know), and I would never pare my nails on a boat. Many of these superstitions were inherited from the British Navy, which in turn took them from sailors throughout antiquity. They make for a soup of ritual, slang, and tradition that can cause a normal person's head to spin (but makes a bit more sense to someone who has lived within its purview, however long ago.)

Much of modern drinking lore can be traced to naval tradition. In 1867, the Merchant Shipping Act required all ships in the British Royal Navy provide a lime ration for its sailors to aid the prevention of scurvy. Luckily, that same year, Lauchlan Rose patented a method to preserve lime juice without the benefit of alcohol. Rose's mitigated the sour taste of lime with just enough sweetness to make it tolerable in your average Jack Tar's rum ration, and the term "Limey" was born.

Yes, that Rose's Lime Juice.

I was lucky enough to begin my career in a bar that was committed to making cocktails using juices that were squeezed fresh daily. While par for the course for bars of any merit these days, in the early 90's this was a big deal. While everyone else would make their margaritas with Rose's Lime Juice, or (gasp) Sweet and Sour from the gun, we took the time to squeeze lime juice right in to the cocktail. We made our names on that difference, and bars continue to do so to this day. I have literally thrown every bottle of Rose's Lime Juice I encountered in to the garbage. If someone were foolish enough to replace it, I would repeat the process until everyone knew that bottles of Rose's were bound to disappear.

I'm lucky that I didn't know the history linking Rose's Lime Juice to the success of the British Navy in my early career; my loyalties might have compelled me to err on the side of nautical. At this point though, I can appreciate the contribution Lachlan Rose made to the preservation of the lives of sailors, yet still feel at peace tossing out his product.

As much as I will always be a Navy Man, I am now a bartender through-and-through. Lime cordial, I thank you for your service. But I have a box of limes, a bag of sugar, and an hour or so to prep them for my shift. If that doesn't stave off the scurvy, I don't know what will.