Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s contributing cocktail editor and the author of the column Easy Drinking. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.
Judging by the quickly changing skies outside my window in Portland, Oregon — where I see moments of brilliant sunshine followed by a short, warm downpour of rain — it must be spring. And as the saying goes, in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of spring cocktails. Or something like that. Anyway, springtime always makes this youngish man’s fancy turn to thoughts of the Pimm’s cup.
I’m obligated to give you a little bit of backstory about Pimm’s, though even I don’t find it all too terribly exciting. See for yourself: James Pimm, the owner of an oyster bar in London, invented Pimm’s in 1823 as a sort of health tonic. And what’s it made from? Well, I can’t tell you that, because nobody really knows. What we do know is that the original Pimm’s, whose full name is Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, is made from a base of gin. From there, there are various fruits, herbs and spices added. The company won’t tell me which those are, so I can’t tell you here. But what I can tell you is that it tastes like a sort of alcoholic iced tea. Sorta.
You should also know that there are a total of six variants on Pimm’s, each with a different base. No. 2 is made from whiskey, No. 3 is made from brandy, No. 4 is made from rum, No. 5 is made from rye and No. 6 is made from vodka. But you don’t really need to know that, as only the original is sold here in the States.
That’s about the extent of my knowledge as a very poor excuse for a liquor historian and expert in all things fruit-cup-related. But if there’s one saving grace, it’s that I’m a decent bartender and can tell you exactly how to make a delicious drink with the stuff.
A Pimm’s cup (the drink has the same name as the liquor, oddly enough) is traditionally served tall, with layers of summer fruits mingled with ice cubes, and cut with what the English call lemonade and we in the States refer to as 7-Up. It is then garnished with mint sprigs and borage. What’s borage? I’m so glad you asked. Borage, or starflower, is a plant with edible leaves that you find growing all over England, but not so much over here. And those edible leaves taste a lot like…wait for it…cucumber.
Thus explains why most Pimm’s cups served in the United States are garnished with cucumber. Which I personally feel is an even more natural warm-weather addition than borage. However, there is the problem of that “lemonade,” as I just don’t find cocktails made with that particular mixer to ever be that good.
Enter bitter lemon soda. It’s drier than 7-Up. It’s more full of flavor. And it makes the best Pimm’s cup you’ve ever had. Fever Tree makes a great version, and even the Schweppes and Canada Dry offerings will do in a pinch. And if you want to get really crazy, you can take the San Pellegrino Limonata for a spin in your Pimm’s cup.
My editor suggested that I recommend a cocktail other than the Pimm’s cup that can be made with the stuff. But you know what? I have yet to try one that I like as much as I like the original. So I’m going to stick with what I know and give you my version of a Pimm’s cup, the one I’ll be making this weekend, when the weather is beautiful and my front porch is bathed in sunshine and filled with friends.
12 ounces Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
24 ounces bitter lemon soda
1 green apple, sliced thinly
1 English cucumber, peeled into long strips with a vegetable peeler
1 lemon, sliced thinly
Fresh berries, such as strawberries (sliced), blueberries and raspberries (whole)
Fresh spearmint sprigs
In a large pitcher, layer cucumber, apple and berries with ice until pitcher is full. Pour Pimm’s over ice and fruit and top with lemon soda. To serve, fill tall glasses with ice and pour drink. Garnish with lemon wheel and mint sprigs.
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