Pimm’s cup: As fresh as the season


Pimm’s Cup at Mecca is garnished with fresh cucumber and lemon zest.

by Charles Upchurch

photograph by Juli Leonard

Yes, I am drinking a Pimm’s Cup as I write this. OK, I’m finishing a Pimm’s Cup. I recommend that you enjoy one while reading this summer issue of Walter. Out in the garden or on the patio if possible. No Pimm’s No. 1 on your bar? Quickly, beat that path to the ABC and get some. Don’t forget ginger ale. And without exception, cucumber.

I’ll freshen mine up in the meantime. I used Reed’s Jamaican Ginger Beer. Blenheim’s Spicy Ginger Ale gives it punch, but good old Canada Dry works just fine, too.

Maybe you already know that Pimm’s Cup is the eponymous cocktail made with 25-proof Pimm’s No. 1, the herbal, subtly spicy, cola-colored liqueur made in Great Britain from a closely guarded gin-based recipe. When blended over ice with ginger ale or sparkling lemonade, a Pimm’s Cup is slightly lower in alcohol than the average beer.

Sample Pimm’s unadorned, and the takeaway is a bitter, yet fragrant digestif reminiscent of a dry, aromatic port. There are notes of orange and caramel. Add the fizzy confection of ginger ale, and the Pimm’s Cup springs to life. Yet it is the garden-variety cucumber – asserting its earthy nose into the mix of quinine-tinged liqueur and sweet soda – that gives the Pimm’s Cup a lovely, balanced taste best described as fresh.

Pimm’s Cup is the essential British summer drink, and on both sides of the pond, perfectly reasonable people are bonkers for it.  For London native Andrew Pettifer, chef and owner of Margeaux’s Restaurant in North Raleigh, Pimm’s recalls summer parties in England and boat races on the Thames. “Being rather low in alcohol, Pimm’s is perfect for summertime,” he said. “It’s a long, refreshing drink that doesn’t go straight to your head.”

Local recipes run the gamut: At Raleigh’s landmark Mecca Restaurant, a Pimm’s Cup is made with Pimm’s and the simple addition of ginger ale and a garnish of cucumber and lemon twist. Things get fancier down the street at Neptune’s Parlour, where strawberry jam enters the mix. Around the corner, BuKu throws some extra gin in their cup for good measure.

Pimm’s itself dates back to 1823 when James Pimm, proprietor of the city’s popular Oyster Bar, sought to keep his customers upright a tad longer by concocting a flavorful, low-alcohol drink made with the spirit most favored by Londoners at the time – gin. His No. 1 “fruit cup” allowed the clientele to indulge to their heart’s content. Pimm’s became so popular that Pimm sold the recipe and the name to a group that began marketing the liqueur to restaurants throughout the city, and an English icon was born. By 1887, Pimm’s Oyster Houses were franchised. The producer of Pimm’s would eventually introduce more cups derived from rum, brandy and other spirits, but only Pimm’s No. 1 survived long enough to become a cultural staple, symbolizing the British predilection for a proper, civilized drink.

Today, Pimm’s No. 1 is made from Gordon’s London Dry gin and a secret recipe known only to six people. In appropriately Bondian fashion, the six are forbidden to travel together, avoiding the potential risk of a catastrophic event that would result in the loss of, well – let’s not speak of it. As the variety found here in Raleigh will attest, Pimm’s Cup recipes come in degrees of complexity, both in taste and preparation.

A good place to start when looking for an authentic recipe is the Pimm’s No. 1 bottle itself. The label reads: “Fill a tall glass halfway with ice. Add 1.5 oz. of PIMMS. Top off with ginger ale or lemon-lime soda. Garnish with a slice of lemon.” No cucumber? I checked the website. There’s my cucumber. And there is orange, mint and strawberry, too. Looks like I have some taste testing to do. I suggest you do the same.