Warm-weather drinks are always a mixed bag. Simplicity is both their virtue and their curse. Although these types of cocktails will never be considered “sophisticated,” they can, at the very least, approach the more aspirational “classy.”
It all boils down to choices. A rum and Coke can be, literally, bottom-shelf rum and Diet Coke poured into a Solo cup. Or it can aspire to be a true Cuba Libre, with a squeeze of lime, a dash of bitters, maybe a little gin and perhaps even Mexican-recipe Coca-Cola (with cane sugar instead of corn syrup). A gin and tonic can be Crystal Palace from a plastic jug and Canada Dry. Or the Spanish-style G&T with higher-end (or homemade) tonic and muddled fruit. A mint julep can be a gross, pre-mixed disaster, redolent of mouthwash. Or it can be lovingly crafted to order, with gently bruised mint leaves and a good bourbon.
Perhaps no drink illustrates this dichotomy better than the Pimm’s Cup. On one hand, it’s the snooty summer tipple of Wimbledon, garnished with borage leaves, cucumber, strawberries or mint. On the other hand, it’s one of the staples of New Orleans’ French Quarter, made with lemonade and 7-Up. Over a long weekend in the Big Easy, some friends and I once tried to collectively drink 100 of the latter. As I said: classy.
The base of the Pimm’s Cup is, of course, Pimm’s No. 1, the rust-colored liqueur that’s a blend of gin, fruit and spices, dating to 19th-century London. There also used to be the Scotch-based Pimm’s Cup No. 2, the brandy-based No. 3, the rum-based No. 4, the rye-based No. 5 and the vodka-based No. 6. Now, you can only occasionally find the No. 3, sold as Pimm’s Winter Cup, and even more rarely the No. 6.
Because Pimm’s No. 1 has only 25 percent alcohol, its signature cocktail is perhaps the perfect afternoon drink (with less proof than a glass of wine). It goes down almost too easily. The Pimm’s Cup is subtle and doesn’t bowl you over with flavor, which means that if you’re a big whiskey or even gin-and-tonic aficionado, this might not be your favorite.
A Pimm’s Cup can be made dozens of ways. The original borage-leaf garnish has long since given way to the cucumber. Traditionally, drinks in the category known as “cups” were always garnished with a mix of seasonal fruit, and that mix is one way bartenders put their individual twist on the drink. In England, strawberry and mint often find their way into the glass. The New Orleans-style version most of us are familiar with, made famous by the Napoleon House, calls for a couple ounces of Pimm’s and three ounces of lemonade, topped with 7-Up and garnished simply with cucumber. The choice of soda in a Pimm’s Cup is also a matter of debate. In England, it’s generally ginger ale or club soda, while in the United States, good old 7-Up has taken over.
Since I’m a transatlantic sort of chap, my ideal Pimm’s Cup cobbles together several approaches. I like to use freshly squeezed lemon juice rather than lemonade. I like to add strawberries and other fruit. And I insist, with all apologies to the All-England Club, that the best Pimm’s Cups are made with 7-Up. And I mean specifically 7-Up. Not Sprite or any other lemon-lime soda. Also, always remember the cucumber slice as a garnish; its aromatics are very important to this drink.
The Pimm’s Cup provides a wonderful palette for further experimentation, and I’ve seen a number of versions that toss out the Pimm’s No. 1 altogether. In the wonderful Black Cup, created by Jim Meehan at PDT in New York, Pimm’s is replaced with port.
For my Pimm’s Cup, I like to muddle the produce and then shake everything together before straining the mixture into an ice-filled Collins glass. I find that when the fruit is just plopped into the drink as a garnish, it doesn’t really add much. My way is a little fussier, but not a lot. It adds about three minutes to the preparation time, maybe four if you can’t immediately locate your knife. If muddling complicates your life, by all means make your Pimm’s Cup however you like it.
That’s one of the best things about warm-weather drinks. Sure, they’re all about choices. But those choices are very forgiving.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed, 2010). Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/boozecolumnist.