In London, early July marks the finals of the grandest tennis event in the world: Wimbledon. For spectators watching the volleys and backhands from the outdoor seats, the traditional method of cooling down is sipping on a Pimm’s cocktail.
Like the mint julep and the Kentucky Derby, Pimm’s and Wimbledon go hand-in-hand. The tipple is a mixture of Pimm’s No. 1 Cup liqueur and lemonade, garnished with strawberries, mint and cucumber.
Pimm’s is a mahogany-colored, gin-based spirit made from liqueur, fruit and spices. Like Coca-Cola, its exact formula is a closely guarded secret. According to the Pimm’s website, AnyoneForPimms.com, the spirit dates back to 1823 and James Pimm’s London bar, where patrons swallowed oysters with the ‘house cup’ – a gin-based beverage containing quinine and a classified blend of spices. It was served in vessels known as “No. 1 Cups.”
The popularity of the drink grew until it was known across England. By 1851, the Pimm’s line expanded to No. 2 (Scotch) and No. 3 (brandy) cups. The collection eventually grew to six, including No. 4 (rum) No. 5 (rye whiskey) and No. 6. (vodka). These later versions did not have the staying power of the original, but a brandy version infused with spices and orange peel is marketed as Pimm’s Winter Cup.
The first Pimm’s bar opened at the 1971 Wimbledon tournament, and today over 80,000 pints of Pimm’s and lemonade are sold to spectators each year.
Pimm’s comes close to summer drink perfection; its citrusy herbal flavor tastes fresh and invigorating on a hot afternoon. At only 25 percent alcohol, it can be enjoyed early in the day without knocking you out by dinner.
I first sampled Pimm’s at the home of one of my colleagues from the Associated Press, Bob Meyers. His wife Mary Jane Stevens, a native Brit, served me one during a pool party. For a person who doesn’t enjoy overly-sweet drinks, Pimm’s was a delightful and refreshing discovery.
“My parents had a pub and my mother would make Pimms for customers during the summer season,” Mary Jane said. “She made it with Pimms and lemonade (the equivalent of 7-Up or Sprite in the U.S.)”
As Mary Jane pointed out, the lemonade used in the traditional British potable is different than the U.S.-version. The British mixer is clear and bubbly, similar to a soft drink. Many substitute ginger ale, or lemon juice and soda.
Originally Pimm’s was garnished with a blue-flowered herb called borage. Nowadays, it’s usually dressed with a sprig of mint or cucumber. At Wimbledon, where strawberries and cream are the food of choice, the red berry accessory is a must. Other popular additions include apples, oranges, lemons or cherries.
With such a long history, some consider Pimm’s a drink for the older generation. But according to Mary Jane, the drink is growing in popularity among the younger set, “When my daughters went off to university in the U.K., they told me that Pimms was their favorite drink at the pub,” she said. “I noticed that it was being served during the Royal Wedding celebrations.”
Whether you spend this weekend watching tennis on the telly or mingling at a holiday cookout, try a Pimm’s cocktail for a crisp and unique refresher.
Classic Pimm’s Cocktail
Take a jug or long drink glass and fill it with ice.
Mix 1 part Pimm’s with 3 parts chilled lemonade. ?Garnish with mint, cucumber, strawberry, or fruit. Sprite, 7-Up or ginger ale may be substituted for lemonade.
Pimm’s No. 1 Cup may be purchased at Dixie Liquor at 3429 M Street in Georgetown.