When Maison Premiere opened in 2011, the debut menu included a classic Pimm’s Cup, consisting of the gin-based herbal liqueur Pimm’s No. 1 dressed up with cucumber, housemade ginger syrup and a bouquet of fresh mint. Ten years later, the Pimm’s Cup is still on the menu. But, to date, the recipe has changed 37 times—a testament to just how versatile the drink can be.
The Brooklyn bar claims New Orleans as one of its key inspirations, so it’s no surprise that one of NOLA’s most popular classics is a regular fixture. While the first Pimm’s on the menu gave the spotlight to the No. 1 bottling, recalls bar director William Elliott, “as time went on, we started to integrate other spirits as a matter of course.”
Those variations were inspired by the history of the “lost” Pimm’s Cups, once made with whiskey, brandy, rum and vodka, introduced as early as the 1930s. Eventually, Elliott began to view the Pimm’s as a canvas, ideal for painting with seasonal flavors, and started rolling out a new variation each quarter. Building on the classic template—Pimm’s liqueur and citrus, lengthened with a bubbly mixer—a string of elaborate versions emerged.
“Of course, we cocktail-bar it to death,” says Elliott.
For example, the Winter 2017 version split the base between Pimm’s and overproof bourbon, modified with crème de menthe, crème de peche and PX sherry. Lemon cordial and soda water stood in for lemon-lime soda and, as a finishing touch, the mint garnish was dusted with grated nutmeg and shavings of candied pecan.
“It was a surprising one, I don’t make drinks much with bourbon or American whiskey,” recalls Elliott. But mint, peach, sherry and bourbon harmonized. “It was the most quenchable, drinkable Pimm’s we had.”
Though some consider Pimm’s a cocktail unto itself, often served with little more than a topper of ginger ale, for Elliott the herbal liqueur requires some additional effort.
“It doesn’t come in with a lot of intrinsic profile or flavor,” he says. “Pimm’s is just so drab by itself.” However, it plays well across the spectrum of spirits, with pisco for a brighter, lighter spring version or Calvados for a richer fall drink. “It does serve this odd amplifying role,” Elliott says. “It’s not bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s more like it needs all these other parts in order to be able to rise above.
Toward that end, the Fall 2019 version featured a French plum brandy, spiced up with small amounts of pimento dram, cinnamon syrup and a housemade blueberry-cardamom cordial. Amontillado sherry provided weight, while a full teaspoon of Bittermens cranberry bitters added an autumnal accent.
Over the years, the cocktail has become a springboard for research and development at Maison Premiere. “It is one of the few drinks on the menu we open up to the whole bar team to help create,” says Elliott. “It’s an open call for creativity.”
Usually, the process begins by staff identifying the spirit they want to work with, so it won’t duplicate efforts of recent seasons. From there, “they free-form connect that spirit to other flavors they might want to work with.” After a few iterations, usually with Elliott’s input, the final cut is decided.
Beyond the base spirit, fortified wine, like sherry, or pommeau usually enters the mix to add “weight” to the less-substantial liqueur. Traditional accent flavors, such as ginger or cucumber, are open to broad interpretation. The bar team has also experimented with the effervescent component: Though it’s often ginger ale or ginger beer, they’ve also topped the drink with soda water, mineral water, tonic or even a mix, such as “the subtlety of a top of ginger ale” over a more-neutral soda water lengthener.
The garnish adds additional layers of aroma and flavor, starting with mint or another leafy bouquet as a base upon which to rest anything from microplaned cinnamon to toasted citrus zest. “We encourage an original, unique garnish every time,” says Elliott.
Yet, it’s become harder to structure new versions each year, Elliott admits. So perhaps it makes sense that the Summer 2021 Pimm’s veers closer to the classic version that graced Maison Premiere’s opening menu. There’s symmetry to the simplicity, too. The bar reopened in June after remaining shuttered for more than 12 months due to the pandemic, not even offering to-go cocktails; the latest menu represents its reintroduction to the world. Head bartender Steven Rhea leans into the flavor profile of the Pimm’s liqueur, enhancing it with orange, lemon and ginger syrup, and shaking the drink with cucumber in the tin, a riff on the regal shake.
Like the variations that came before, this year’s cocktail hits all the right notes, says Elliott—it’s balanced, not too boozy and wouldn’t be out of place at a daytime sporting event. “I’m into wacky surprises now and again,” he says. But to be done right, “a Pimm’s needs to be eminently, dependably refreshing.”