The story of Pimm's and why it's summer's optimal intoxicant.
If you’ve never heard of Pimm’s, then I might be a little surprised, but I’ll get over it. Maybe you’ve tried it once or twice, but hadn't a clue what it was. That’s cool, too, just keep reading. But if you don’t like the recipe below once you've put it to your parched lips, then I’m sorry, but there’s no hope for you. You could, of course, keep sipping those caipirinhas or icy mojitos this summer (both fine choices, when made well), but then you would miss out on one of the most refreshing and polarizing libations the booze world could ever bestow.
But first, some history. Pimm’s is English. It's a rather peculiar, herbal-based aperitif liqueur that is now revered around the world. It was created by a fellow named James Pimm, a fishmonger who would go on to own several popular oyster bars in London; places to be seen for the businessman of the day. In an attempt to make his stand out from the throngs of oyster bars that populated the capital at the time, he began selling a tonic—Pimm’s No.1 Cup—which he served in a small pewter tankard. That was 1840 or thereabouts, although Pimm’s would not be sold commercially until 1859, by which time the franchise had been purchased by Samuel Moray (according to a Pimm's archivist, there's no further details on Moray's previous vocation).
That first concoction—No.1—was based on gin, spiked with a cornucopia of various fruit peels, herbs and exotic botanicals such as quinine, the latter contributing to its dry alluring finish that was originally intended as an aid to digestion. Supposedly, the Pimm’s recipe is known to only six people and its flavor profile is as hard to pinpoint as it is to describe.
No.1 displays complex herbal and floral nuances that have traditionally seen it lengthened over plenty of ice with ginger ale and/or Sprite (which the fine folks across the pond might call "lemonade"). In fact, it looks and drinks a little like iced tea and, at only 25 percent ABV, is most definitely a session drink. Personally, I take mine with a vibrant and spicy ginger beer or, if there’s more than loose change in my pocket, some Champagne. This last version goes by the somewhat fancy appendix of "Royale."
... the Pimm’s recipe is known to only six people and its flavor profile is as hard to pinpoint as it is to describe.
In 1870, the Pimm's company was sold again, this time to Horatio Davies, who would go on to be the Lord Mayor of London for a short spell. His reputation as an entrepreneur saw him start selling the product to other restaurants throughout greater London, while he also expanded the Pimm’s brand internationally. By giving bottles to colonial administrators, explorers and members of the armed forces, Pimm’s made its way to the Galle Face Hotel in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Cape Town and up the Nile to forces in the Sudan.
In time, Pimm's launched five other "cup" variations, each one based on a different spirit. The first of these, perhaps unsurprisingly called "No.2" and "No.3," were released in 1935, based on Scotch and brandy, respectively. The Pimms oyster house was by then a franchised chain, and soon after, the company introduced rum-based "No.4" to counterbalance their dependence on warm weather sales. Its first advertisement proclaimed that "Winter brings its own delights."
The rye-based "No.5" followed (first only sold in Canada), and then came the vodka-spiked "No.6," released during the Mad Men era when that spirit was starting to rear its head with the popularity of the Moscow Mule and the three-Martini lunch. This version was originally bottled under the moniker of "Vodka Sling," and is now known just as the "Vodka Cup."
The one thing that is the hallmark of a glorious Pimm’s—the pièce de résistance, if you will—is the garnish.
Most "cups" have been since phased out, though No.6 can be found if you search hard enough. And not long ago Pimm's re-introduced the vodka-based cup with the addition of blackberry and elderflower. Before that, in 2005, the company also re-released, in small quantities, the No. 3 with a brandy base under the name "Winter Cup." Throw in a further splash of Cognac or smoky Islay whiskey, a whisper of Frangelico (trust me on this one) and some ginger beer, and there’s your refreshing sipper for the colder months. Garnish with winter citrus and pomegranate seeds. Yes, please.
Pimm’s has had a long association with the sporting life, enjoyed courtside at Wimbledon, trackside at the Grand National and riverside at the Henley Regatta. That said, it’s also a drink for the people, and any pub across Ol’ Blighty will serve it by the pitcher in obscene quantities. You will, however, have to beg and plead for more ice which, for me, is one of the key ingredients in making a perfect Pimm’s. Especially since the drink is best enjoyed in the warmer months. For many people, it is the quintessential summer drink. In time, you will think so, too.
Though ice is important, the hallmark of a glorious Pimm’s—the pièce de résistance, if you will—is the garnish. The more ostentatious the better, though a stellar Pimm’s Cup should, at the very least, be adorned with fresh berries (especially strawberry), citrus (lemon and orange is a good start), green apple, some form of greenery (either borage or lovage, or if you can’t find that, mint will suffice) and most important of all, cucumber. It should look like a veritable fruit salad.
The Pimm's Cup has found its spiritual home Stateside at the New Orleans landmark, the Napoleon House, which opened as a grocery store in 1808. While most drinks in Crescent City fall into the diabetes-alert-sweetness-level, the signature drink of this beautifully weathered icon is reassuringly tart; the perfect foil for the balmy, often oppressive humidity of summer in the South.