Say “Pimm’s”: Conjuring Up An English Summer – OpEd

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Strange to relate – strange, that is, to anyone born and raised in the UK – the name  “Pimm’s” means zilch to large numbers of the American public  To Brits the world over Pimm’s is absolutely synonymous with the English summer.  Its only rival as a favorite summertime treat is strawberries and cream, which reaches its frenzied zenith of popularity at the Wimbledon tennis tournament in June.

What is Pimm’s?  It is an alcohol-based fruit drink that keeps the English summer social season afloat.  From the Royal Ascot races to Wimbledon, from Henley Royal Regatta to Cowes week, from the Chelsea Flower Show to the Glyndebourne opera, Pimm’s is always on tap, and always being downed by the bucketful.  

Back in 1823 James Pimm was a fishmonger who opened an Oyster House in South London.  He conceived the idea of selling, alongside his oysters, a drink which might be said to aid digestion.  So he concocted a gin-based liqueur infused with various herbs, spices and quinine.  This he bottled and labeled “Pimm’s No 1 Cup”.

Using his liqueur as the base, he then devised a delicious beverage, topping it up with sparkling lemonade, and piling chopped up summer fruits on top.  And that in essence is what Pimm’s No 1 is today.  A mainstream current recipe specifies one part of Pimm’s to three parts of sparkling lemonade, topped with slices of orange, strawberry and cucumber together with a sprig of mint.

Over the two centuries since it first saw the light of day, the original gin-based Pimm’s has seen the birth of six variants.  Only two – Cups 3 and 6 – remain in production in addition to Pimm’s No 1.

Pimm’s Nos 2, 4, and 5 hit the market in the 1930s and left it in 1970.  To produce them the original recipe was altered by replacing the gin with, respectively, Scotch whisky, dark rum and rye whisky.  Pimm’s No 3, which replaces the gin with brandy, has been introduced and withdrawn several times but, now dubbed Pimm’s Winter Cup, it has its fervent admirers and is currently available.

Pimm’s No 6 Cup is a vodka-based variant which has had a checkered career, but it is now back by popular demand.  The less said about Pimm’s No 7 (a tequila-based variant) the better.

What is the sensual experience of actually imbibing a glass of Pimm’s?  

To start with, it is an episode to be savored.  You can’t down it in one.  You have a tall glass of sparkling liquor in front of you, with slices of fruit and cucumber floating on top and a sprig of mint adorning one side.  A few ice cubes are usual, though (it being England) not obligatory. Too much ice can deaden the taste.  Often ice-cold lemonade straight from the fridge will produce the result. 

The first sip fills the mouth with a light alcoholic beverage, gently infused with herbs and spices, the taste absolutely delicious from having been filtered through fresh fruit.   As you sip your way through, you see the level of sliced orange, strawberry and cucumber slowly sinking in the glass.  With your last swallow comes the climax of your Pimm’s encounter.  Your final experience is to slide those delectable alcohol-imbued fruits from the glass and chew your way through them.  Whether the whole event takes five minutes or half an hour, it is a unique experience, and unlikely to be forgotten.

At home on a sun-drenched afternoon, people will usually make up a jug of Pimm’s and take it out to the garden to keep their guests well topped up.  A standard recipe for a jugful is 200 ml of Pimm’s to 600 ml of lemonade, with plenty of fruit, cucumbers and mint to shovel in on top.

Finally, for the avoidance of all doubt, I must add that Pimm’s is totally unrelated to that other famous sparkling British alcoholic drink, Buck‘s Fizz.

Buck’s fizz is an alcoholic cocktail made of about two parts champagne (sometimes some other sparkling wine)  to one part orange juice

The drink is named after London‘s Buck’s Club, where it is said to have first been served in 1921 by a barman named Malachi “Pat” McGarry.  McGarry features in the works of P G Wodehouse as the barman of the Drone’s Club.  The original Buck’s Club recipe is said to contain additional ingredients known only to the club’s bartenders.

Buck’s fizz is often drunk at Christmas and on New Year’s eve.  It has no relationship at all to Pimm’s.  Pimm’s time is summertime.  Cheers! 

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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