"But in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations, he remains an Englishman." - Gilbert & Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore
There may be something to ancestral memory after all. Whenever the weather warms, something stirs in my English blood and my mixological thoughts turn to the hot-weather drink of a faraway island not especially known for thermometer spikes.
The Pimm's Cup is the favorite cooling drink for uppity British sporting events like the Wimbledon tennis championships and the Henley Royal rowing regatta; and despite that I'm generations and thousands of miles from where it arose, I'm still drawn to it.
In a sense it's one of the few distinctively English drinks. Most of the tipple the country is associated with is really an import. They promoted Cognac to the world, but it is made in France. The British whisky is Scotch, not English. Gin was invented by Dutch before London put its "dry" stamp on it. But Pimm's Cup came straight from an oyster bar in that foggy city.
In the mid-19th century, James Pimm concocted a liqueur flavored with a proprietary recipe of fruit, spices and herbs. It was meant to improve the dodgy flavor of the gin that patrons typically used to wash down the shellfish. With its gin base, it is probably more accurately termed a gin sling, but that term—meaning a mix of spirit, sugar, water and flavoring—hardly does it justice. Pimm's is far more intricate and beguiling, for instance, than a Singapore Sling (lemon juice, cherry brandy and gin). Pimm's tastes—for starters—of triple sec (orange liqueur) and Port or Sherry, and some of the flavors found in vermouth.
For their part, the English classify Pimm's as a "summer fruit cup," a term that is not very exacting. Some other British examples have been made with wine, beer, whiskey, Sherry, and brandy and been flavored with a spectrum of spices, especially ginger, which Pimm's does not have.
Adding to its complexity, Pimm's is almost never taken alone, but is used to make the cocktail that somewhat confusingly takes the same name as the brand of liqueur itself. Actually the name you'll see on the label is "Pimm's The Original No. 1 Cup". The numeral distinguishes a number of variations (No. 2 through No. 6) that are based on spirits other than gin. Most have been discontinued or are not generally available in the United States. What you'll get if you order a Pimm's Cup in a bar is a drink made with Pimm's No. 1, some kind of soda and lots of different fruit.
And then the arguments begin. Soda choices can run from seltzer water, ginger ale, lemon-lime soda (e.g. 7 Up, Sprite) to lemonade (which in England is taken to mean carbonated lemon drink). While garnish choices are secondary considerations in many drinks, in Pimm's Cup they are paramount. In fact, when Pimm's was first marketed to the U.S. in 1949, the brand chose to highlight this: a pair of actresses were paid to stage a hair-pulling argument in a New York nightclub over the proper garnish.
Anyway, there are few ways to go. The kitchen-sink school of thought says put in whatever you have on hand: e.g. orange, lemon, lime, strawberries, apples and mint. Purists say to limit garnish to cucumber. Pimm's snobs say use only borage (a flowering herb common to England that tastes of cucumber and is a sometimes used in gin). However you proceed, that cucumber flavor should always be present.
The point at which I tend to diverge from my English cousins is on proof. Pimm's No. 1 is a bit too weak (50 proof, or 25 percent alcohol) for my American cocktailian tastes. This suggests a fortification with extra gin. Another tactic would be to try to approximate some of the Pimm's variations by adding their spirits base: Scotch (Pimm's No. 2); brandy (No. 3); rum (No. 4); rye whisky (No. 5) or vodka (No. 6). Do-it-yourselfers have even fiddled with Tequila—and call it the nonexistent Pimm's No. 7.
Far be it for me to tell the (real) English what to do. Here is the classic recipe:
1 part Pimm's No. 1 Cup
3 parts lemon-lime soda
Mix ingredients in a highball glass over ice. Garnish with mint, cucumber, orange and strawberry. Drink, and be cool.