Without Pimm’s No. 1, there would be no Pimm’s Cup. Or, for that matter, any other number of drinks that rely on the ruddy gin-based liqueur. Often shortened to just “Pimm’s,” it might come as a shock to learn that the ubiquitous No. 1 does not stand alone; that designation isn’t just a formality or a claim to top honors: In it’s wake, Pimm’s Cup Nos. 2 through 5 have quietly come and gone.
Pimm’s was created by James Pimm, a London fishmonger who, in the 1840s, established a chain of popular oyster houses called the Pimm’s Oyster Warehouse. The No. 1 Cup was originally designed to be sold on-premise in pewter tankards—part of an effort to stand out from the many other oyster houses around London. In 1865, the first bottle of Pimm’s No. 1 was sold, for just three shillings.
What, precisely, is in the bottle is kept close to the vest. Supposedly, the Pimm’s recipe is known to only six people. What is better known, however, is that the original No. 1 was based on gin (and still is) and, as with many other herbal liqueurs, was intended to serve as a tonic to aid in digestion. To that end, it was laced with a mix of fruit peels, herbs and other botanicals, including quinine.
In 1870, entrepreneur Sir Horatio David Davies (and later, Lord Mayor of London from 1897 to 1898), purchased the Pimm’s restaurants and started merchandising Pimm’s, selling it throughout the UK and the colonial outposts of the British Empire. One of the first recorded exports is to the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was sent up the Nile to forces in the Sudan in 1898, and was also exported as far south as Cape Town. Under his watch, Pimm’s became a Limited Company in 1906, as well as a registered trademark in 1912.
By then, the brand was world renowned, and Davies saw an opportunity to expand the product range. The 1930s brought Pimm’s No 2. Cup, made with Scotch, and No. 3 Cup, made with brandy. In 1935, a rum-based No. 4 Cup was introduced as a winter-friendly alternative to Pimm’s No. 1, which was already seen as a summertime crowd pleaser. (It was launched with the advertisement “Winter brings its own delights.” Where, exactly, Scotch and brandy played into this seasonal balance is unclear.) Meanwhile, the No. 5 Cup, built on rye, was introduced in Canada. When sales rapidly increased after World War II, Pimm’s brought the No. 5 Cup to the UK and introduced the No. 6 Cup, starring vodka.
So what happened to all these Pimm’s Cups?
In 1969, Diageo (then known as the Distillers Company Ltd.) bought the line and, in 1970, discontinued Nos. 2 through 5. No one, not even Diageo archivist Alia Campbell, seems to know the rationale behind that decision. It’s worth noting, however, that the 1970s were the heyday of “disco drinks,” when vodka started to make its ascent and brown spirits were on the decline. Of course, in England, gin was the country’s native spirit, making it a no-brainer to keep No. 1.
Since then, two of the lost Pimm’s Cups have made a comeback, at least in the UK. In 2004, in the first brand extension in decades, No. 4 and No. 6 were re-introduced under new names: “Winter Cup” and “Vodka Cup,” respectively. The latter was again pulled from production in 2014, only to be swiftly reinstated a year later.
“We take consumer feedback to heart, and we have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for Pimm’s No. 6 Vodka Cup,” stated Joanna Segesser, then Pimm’s senior brand manager, in a press release at the time. It returned as “Vodka Cup,” and is still produced in limited quantities.
Not everyone is willing to let the rest of those missing numbers go. Vintage bottles still show up occasionally in high-end spirits auctions or in the collections of rare dusty-hunters. In 2015, at London’s American Bar at The Savoy Hotel, former head bartender Erik Lorincz procured vintage Pimm’s bottlings and served a menu of Pimm’s Cup cocktails until the bottles ran dry. (Supposedly, another former bartender there tried to re-formulate the flavor profiles of the long-lost Pimm’s Cups using modern ingredients, but there’s no word on where those recipes went.)
For others, even dedicated fans of the No. 1 bottling, there’s a sense that bringing back these extinct products wouldn’t necessarily fill a perceived gap on the backbar. At Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere, for example, bar director William Elliott has managed to work Pimm’s No. 1 into a staggering number of Pimm’s Cup variations—32 in all—but what he likes about it, namely its low proof and ability to play well with other ingredients, might not ring true for other expressions. “The fun thing about Pimm’s is dressing it up,” he says, “It’s just kind of a nice, flexible base to dress up with another spirit and some modifiers.”
So, with the ever-widening array of bottles and drink combinations out there, is there even really a need to bring back the lost Pimm’s bottles?
“Beyond historic resurrectionist curiosity? No,” says Elliott. “But still, I would love to see it.”