In London on June 23rd the sun will rise at 4:44 am and set at 9:22pm. That same day will see the start of one of the most famous tennis tournaments in the world, Wimbledon, and from sun up to sun down the city will be awash in a summer libation called a Pimm’s No. 1 Cup. Within the hallowed gates of Wimbledon alone over 40,000 pints of the summery, herbaceous cocktail will be sold in just two weeks. The rest of London, and the rest of the UK, will be throwing back the posh concoction with abandon as temperatures hit record highs for the third year in a row.
A similar phenomenon, minus the tennis, will be taking place across the ocean in the creole port town of New Orleans, Louisiana. Locals and tourists alike will take the sting out of the humid summer evenings with a cool “local” Pimm’s, often unaware of its origin and popularity a continent away. So what’s the story that unites these two summer traditions?
The tawny-colored gin-based liquor Pimm’s No. 1 Cup is the foundation of the eponymous cocktail. In the 1840s James Pimm, the exalted landlord of an oyster bar in London’s financial district, invented and marketed it as a health tonic. The mixture became so popular over the next decade that Pimm then began selling his top-secret concoction commercially and then globally as the fingers of the British Empire reached into India, Canada, Australia and the Caribbean. The range was extended over the years to include other spirits as bases including Pimm’s No. 2 Cup based on Scotch Whiskey, No. 3 cup based on Brandy, No. 4 cup, based on rum, No. 5 cup, based on rye whiskey and No. 6 cup based on vodka. All are now phased out with the exception of a limited production of No. 6 and No. 3 which is currently being marketed as a “Pimm’s Winter Cup” and is similar to a mulled wine. Aside from English expats, however, the libation remains fairly unknown.
Except that the drink is also wildly popular in New Orleans, the two cities united by architecture, restaurants, and a healthy dose of the bon viveur set—though an ocean away.
New Orleans lore, corroborated by a 2012 article in the New York Times by Robert Simonson, has it that the drink was made popular in the Crescent City by The Napoleon House bar in the French Quarter in the late 1940s. The father of the current proprietor was looking for a cocktail that would be refreshing in the New Orleans heat but that wouldn’t be so high in alcohol that he would lose his patrons to an early night. Pimm’s, at 25% alcohol and usually served in a one-part alcohol to three-parts mixer ratio, seemed a perfect solution; exactly how he first came across the drink isn’t clear – perhaps a hazy memory from his time in Europe during World War II? Or an enthusiastically evangelical Brit travelling with emergency Pimm’s supplies? Either way the popularity of the bar, and the drink, grew exponentially and now many New Orleanians claim the Pimm’s Cup as their own, blissfully ignorant of it’s colonial patrimony. (I was one of them until I found myself married to an Englishman who quickly set me straight).
Even Kelsey Parris, Operations Manager at The Southern Food and Beverage Institute (SOFAB) admits she too was taken aback by its heritage, “The first time I visited New Orleans I was starting Tulane and my mom and I went to French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s. The bartender served me a Pimm’s and said that because I was with my mother I could drink. He then said, ‘This is just pure New Orleans’ and went on to tell me about the drink being invented here. I found out much later that it wasn’t invented in New Orleans at all but this city has sure claimed ownership!”
The most popular preparation in New Orleans is the one created by the Napoleon house and involves a tall glass of ice, one-part Pimm’s No. 1, three-parts lemonade, topped with a splash of 7up and garnished with a cucumber. It is common also to see lime and mint added, or a combination of tonic water and club soda for those who don’t want it quite as sweet.
In the UK, however, the drink is usually made in a pitcher filled with ice and a generous glug of Pimm’s (1/4 to 1/ 3 of the pitcher) topped up with sparkling lemonade and then garnished with every summer fruit you can fit into the glass. Strawberries, raspberries, oranges, blackberries – maybe the Brits are still worried about scurvy, because as long as it’s technically possible to add some liquid to the fruit, anything goes. Add a few sprigs of mint, some sliced cucumber and you’re ready. Pubs sell it by the bucket-load in the summers as twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings spill out into the streets soaking up the long English summer days. In fact it’s so popular that if you find yourself in a tight spot you can even buy ready-mixed Pimm’s cans at most corner stores.
Whether you choose the New Orleans recipe, drawn by the magnetism of the food and culture of all things New Orleanian (or, adopted New Orleanian) or the English version in a fit of Brit fever that began with the Royal Wedding and grew with the birth of Baby George, the Queen’s Jubilee, and the Olympics (clad throughout in Burberry) there is no denying the importance of Pimm’s in any proper Summer’s evening. The only question is which recipe you will make your own.
New Orleans Pimm’s Cup
Fill a tall glass with ice. Add 1 part Pimm’s to 3 parts Sprite. Squeeze in a lime wedge, add two slices of cucumber and a sprig of mint. Serve and drink immediately.
Alternative: Replace the Sprite with equal parts tonic water and club soda. Increase the mint.
Lemonade (British lemonade is like a tart 7-up)
Lots of fresh fruit (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, sliced oranges, cherries)
Fill a pitcher with ice. Add a large handful of a variety of fresh fruit. Add a few slices of cucumber. Add 1 part Pimm’s to 3 parts Lemonade. Stir. Top with a squeeze of lime, a bit of mint.
Kelsey Parris’ recipe
Fill a glass with ice and add 1 part Pimm’s to 3 parts ginger ale. Add lime and cucumber and an extra splash of gin. If mom isn’t looking, of course.