To think of Pimm’s is to conjure images of idyllic English summers: boat shows on the Thames, Wimbledon, cream cakes and fresh strawberries enjoyed on green lawns, cricket and garden parties interrupted by unexpected rain showers. It’s a drink that defines not just a season, but a culture, too.
However, the famous fruit cup bears less glamorous origins: Invented in the 1840s by James Pimm, a London oyster bar owner, it was conceived as a tonic to aid digestion for hedonistic customers who’d gorged on too much seafood. The drink became so popular that Pimm began selling his “No. 1 Cup” around the capital, leading to large-scale production by the 1850s.
Variations have come and gone—Pimm’s No. 2 Cup was blended with Scotch whisky, the No. 3 Cup with brandy—but none have been as enduring as the original gin-based No. 1. The secret of the exact recipe only lends to its cultural lore: Rumor has it that just six people are privy to the details, and they’re forbidden from traveling together to prevent leaving us in a world without Pimm’s.
As tradition goes, a Pimm’s Cup calls for a base of Pimm’s, lemon juice and a topper of ginger ale (or lemonade), served over ice with plenty of mint and fresh fruit. But the drink lends itself to adaptation, and innovators on this side of the pond have tinkered with the classic to create variations for a Stateside summer.
Williamsburg’s Maison Premiere regularly riffs on the typical cup; Will Elliott’s latest, the sub-tropical Maison Summer Pimm’s #16, is fortified with a hit of cachaça and elevated, for bitter-loving Brooklynites, with Aperol and grapefruit. Chantal Tseng, inspired by the restorative power of a beer cocktail on a hot day, gives her Rustic Pimm’s Cup a fizzy lift with ginger ale and wheat beer, while the cucumber syrup captures the essence of a quintessential garnish.
At The Slanted Door in San Francisco, Erik Adkins throws (almost) all tradition to the wind in the Royal Pimm’s Cup by concocting his very own boozy Pimm’s Mix with Campari, dry and sweet vermouths, and Punt e Mes; it’s all topped with sparkling wine and inviting instructions to “decorate garishly.” Meanwhile, in Nashville, Freddy Schwenk’s Nirvana-inspired Heart-Shaped Box layers gin on more gin by combining Pimm’s No.1 with Ransom Old Tom, whose potency is mitigated by a touch of lime juice and lemongrass syrup. And for those who prefer to hew closer to tradition, there’s our version of the OG Pimm’s Cup: simple, refreshing perfection best enjoyed court-side.
Just remember, when it comes to riffing on the Pimm’s Cup, there’s really only one rule: Garnish with abandon.