Straight out of the bottle, Pimm’s No. 1 is a light (25 percent alcohol by volume) gin-based concoction flavored with spices and citrus; the recipe is a trade secret, of course. In a classic Pimm’s Cup, the liqueur is served over ice with a soda mendaciously known in the U.K. as lemonade (or sometimes with ginger ale) in a glass or tankard stuffed with some or all of the following: cucumber, orange, lemon, strawberries, mint or borage and even the odd maraschino cherry.
It’s a great idea for a cold summer punch. The problem is that carbonated British “lemonade” is not a good product. In general (there are expensive exceptions), even the ones not advertised as low-calorie are sweetened partly with saccharine and other non-sugar sweeteners. (This is true of U.K. tonic water, too, incidentally.) They also contain artificial flavors and very little real lemon juice.
I got to thinking, though, that with honest ingredients you could put together a delicious version of a Pimm’s Cup, one that would still be true to the spirit of the original. For me, the key flavors — besides the Pimm’s No. 1 itself — are cucumber, lemon, orange and mint. And the fizz is important, too. The cucumber, in particular, lends an aroma that you can detect yards away. But in the classic drink, it just sits there in the glass, and I wanted it to be better integrated.
My approach started with a cucumber-lemon syrup, easily made if you have a juicer, but not impossible without one. (Actually, it really starts with simple syrup, something you should have in the fridge at all times to sweeten cold drinks such as iced tea without having to stir the granulated sugar for 20 minutes until it dissolves. Just follow the steps of this recipe and refrigerate the result.)
I juiced a biggish peeled cucumber and a golf ball-sized chunk of fresh ginger, also peeled, then ran a peeled lemon and its zest (not the white pith) through the juicer. To this pale-green liquid, I added the juice of a second lemon. This yielded 1 1/4 cups of liquid, which I sweetened with a quarter cup of simple syrup. (You will sweeten to taste but not to excess.) This went into the fridge to chill.
(If you don’t have a juicer, finely grate a large peeled cucumber into a bowl, stir in a quarter cup of sugar and leave it alone for an hour or two, so that the sugar can draw out the liquid; then squeeze it hard, really hard, through a kitchen towel to extract the sweetened juice. Add the juice of two lemons and the finely grated zest of one, taste for sweetness and proceed. The juicer, however, is the better way to go.)
To make the drink, I used a wooden spoon to muddle a couple of orange slices and a few mint leaves — press hard to extract lots of flavorful oil from the orange zest. I then added ice, a little less than 3 ounces of Pimm’s No. 1 and about 2 ounces of cucumber-lemon syrup, filling the glass with carbonated water. Obviously, you should tinker with the proportions, especially since home-made syrups will vary.
The aroma was strikingly cucumbery, and it tasted just the way a summer drink should, even if, visually, it wasn’t as crystalline as the industrial version you’d get at most English garden parties. Plus, here in the U.S. you’re marginally less likely to be rained out: There’s no down side to this at all — even if you don’t have any Pimm’s No. 1, because the cucumber-lemon syrup goes down pretty easily stirred with ice and gin and strained into a frosty martini glass.