To say the Pimm’s Cup is extremely British is to still somehow understate it. It’s as British as a cup of tea, or as calling fries “chips” and chips “crisps,” or as watching reruns of Blackadder on your mobile whilst queueing politely for the loo. Indeed, as cocktail author and bonafide British person Simon Difford writes of the Pimm’s Cup, “You’ve not properly experienced an English summer until you’ve drunk one of these whilst sheltering from the rain.”
While we obviously share a language, this is all sufficiently British that it requires some small translation.
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The liquid we know as Pimm’s—technically Pimm’s No. 1 Cup—was invented by oyster bar owner James Pimm in the mid 1800s. In England, a “cup,” “fruit cup” or “summer cup” is by tradition a bit of gin, mixed with fruit, herbs and/or spices, designed to be stretched into tall effervescence by a light soft drink and garnished with abandon, and so for almost a century “Pimm’s Fruit Cup” was exactly that. In the 1930s the company put out another version, a scotch whiskey base this time, calling it “Pimm’s No. 2” and presumably assigning the original gin-based liqueur “Pimm’s No. 1.” From then until the ‘70s they went all the way up to No. 6, all with different liquor bases, but in the 1970s and ‘80s, interest in Pimm’s contracted (alongside most other worthwhile spiritous pursuits) and so apart from some small or seasonal things, what we’re left now is, once again, the gin-based herbal liqueur called Pimm’s No. 1 Cup.
A couple more bits of translation: Pimm’s No. 1 Cup is not a Pimm’s Cup, as the former is a liqueur, and the latter is a cocktail made from that liqueur. To get there, you first you have to add what the English refer to as “lemonade,” a sparkling lemon-lime soda which in America we’d recognize as 7 Up or Sprite. Also, you need to festoon it with enough fresh garnishes to shame a salad bar (not really, more on that below). To further confuse you, some people use ginger ale or ginger beer instead of lemon lime soda, while others use good old American kids-on-the-suburban-corner lemonade, presumably as a misreading of the Englishness of the recipe.
The reason so many versions have been allowed to proliferate is that they are, in fact, all quite good. The Pimm’s Cup is an excellent summer cooler no matter how you make it, it’s modest proof and refreshing herbaceousness ideally suited to daytime drinking, as is its natural affinity for extra-refreshing flavors like cucumbers and mint. The Pimm’s Cup is the official cocktail of many English summertime events like the Chelsea Flower Show, the Henley Royal Regatta and the top hat-required Royal Ascot (I know it sounds like I’m making that last one up, but I swear I’m not), and for the last 50 years has been inseparable from Wimbledon, where in two weeks the attendees consume a staggering 276,000 of them.
As the weather warms, you should treat yourself to a Pimm’s Cup or two. Ideally it would be on a late spring or summer’s day that calls for a brief bit of rain. And if you want to mumble something to yourself like “jolly good” while you fix it, well, all the better. Cheers.
2 oz. Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
0.5 oz. lime or lemon juice
3.5-4 oz. lemon-lime soda or ginger beer
Add all ingredients to a tall glass with ice. Garnish with a cucumber. Also some mint if you have it. And if you want to add some orange, apple and strawberry slices to it while you do so, jolly good.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Lime or Lemon Juice: Pimm’s has an equal affinity for both lemon and lime, and unless you have an especially tart soda, you’ll want to recruit one or the other.
Soda: One of the two big questions for the Pimm’s Cup is which soft drink to use. The original English “lemonade”—our Sprite or 7 Up—makes a wonderful, if a bit superficial, version. Interestingly, the garnishes change this: When you introduce something as simple as a couple slices of cucumber to the glass, the whole taste profile levels up.
Conversely, finishing your Pimm’s Cup with ginger beer is phenomenal at first, but it’s such a strong flavor that when you start adding multiple garnishes and it can get weird or muddy pretty quick. My lesson from this is that if you feel like adding a cornucopia to it, perhaps you should make your Pimm’s Cups with a lemon-lime soda. If you just want to stick to cucumber and mint, feel free to branch out into ginger beer.
Garnishes: The other big question. Some people just use cucumber. Some add mint to that. Others still add orange, strawberry, apple, basil, thyme, and who knows what else. It’s a philosophical difference—there are many who’ll swear that it’s not a Pimm’s Cup unless the glass is palpably heavier with garnishes. The rest will say that’s silly, it’s the liquid that counts. Personally, I fall in the latter camp, but if you want to add a pickled carrot and dust it in bee pollen, who am I to tell you not to?
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