IT’S A HOT AFTERNOON in Wimbledon. “England hot,” certainly, a temperature that in many other countries nearer to the equator would be called “warmish.” But, still, you’re sweating in your tennis whites and oversized straw hat. Despite the heat, you are riveted to your seat, sitting tense and on edge as you and every other person near you follow a little yellowish-greenish ball bouncing on a lush lawn with the tenacity of a crowd of golden retrievers, heads turning left, right and left again, people occasionally stopping to pop a straw in their mouths to take a long, thirst-quenching sip of the tangy, crisp libation known as Pimm’s Cup.
A Pimm’s Cup is a refreshing hot-weather tipple that distinguishes itself as one of two official drinks of the UK’s venerable Wimbledon tennis tournament (the other is Champagne). It consists of the eponymous gin-based liqueur mixed with sparkling lemonade or ginger ale over ice, garnished with mint and fruit. You’ll find the base for the Pimm’s Cup already bottled at the liquor store, labeled Pimm’s No. 1, and to this prepackaged libation you add the mixer and garnish. When you buy a bottle of Pimm’s No. 1, what you’re actually purchasing is known in England as a “fruit cup,” a bottled combo of liqueur and aromatics or flavorings that then gets added to fruit juice or soda to make a crisp summer beverage.
Invented by James Pimm, the owner of a London oyster bar, sometime around 1832, the stuff in the bottle was served on its own as a drink, then called the House Cup, or the Pimm’s No. 1 Cup. This drink was just gin plus quinine and botanicals, and it was marketed as a digestif or “health tonic.” Pimm was a prolific mixologist; at one point there were six Pimm’s bottled drinks (named as they were numbered, 1 through 6). But currently, the company manufactures only three: No. 1, its mainstay; as well as vodka-based No. 6; and a Christmasy No. 3 made with brandy.
You can, if you like, make your own Pimm’s mix. I’m a sucker for tradition, but I’m also a sucker for not having too many bottles gathering dust in my home bar. Serious Eats suggests all you need to approximate Pimm’s No. 1 is gin, sweet vermouth, and orange or orange peel. And while you can drink it straight, generally Pimm’s No. 1 is now used as a base liquor in the cocktail also unhelpfully named the Pimm’s Cup, which is what they serve at Wimbledon (and polo matches, and cricket games — anything summery and posh you do on a lawn).
However, if you live in the United States, the version of the Pimm’s Cup you might be more familiar with is the one you order during a sultry Southern summer in Louisiana. It’s unclear how New Orleans became popularly (and erroneously) known as the original home of the drink. But those who have made the pilgrimage to New Orleans (mecca of jazz-age fun and oversized cocktails) probably sipped one of these on a sweltering balcony and didn’t give a fig where it came from.
The American version of the Pimm’s Cup sometimes subs in 7 UP or Sprite for the lemonade (“gah,” says the food snob in me) and was popularized in 1940 at the Napoleon House Bar, a 100-year-old establishment that was once the residence of the French-leaning mayor of New Orleans Nicolas Girod and to which Napoleon was invited to retreat during his exile in 1821. Napoleon never actually graced the place with his presence, but the gesture was, apparently, reason enough to borrow his name for the bar.
Although most of us will watch Wimbledon from the air-conditioned comfort of our living rooms this year (and, if we’re all being honest, every other year, unless you are really into tennis) the Pimm’s Cup is still a good way to get into the spirit of the game. This is one of those drinks particularly suited to being made in a pitcher because, after all, you can’t keep getting up to make people drinks. You’ve got a little yellow ball to follow.
BRITISH PIMM’S CUP
Cribbed and adjusted from Food & Wine (foodandwine.com/recipes/pimms-cup)
1 1/2 cups Pimm’s No. 1 (or make your own)
1 1/2 cups sparkling lemonade or ginger ale (personally, I use half Topo Chico and half regular, unpasteurized fancy lemonade, but San Pellegrino works fine)
2 to 3 sliced citrus fruits (orange, lemon, lime)
A bunch of other fruit, cut into nibble-sized chunks (I like strawberries, watermelon, raspberries, blackberries, but feel free to experiment)
A handful of mint leaves
Optional: thinly-sliced English or Persian cucumbers (I don’t bother with them, but others insist they’re essential)
Mix everything but the sparkling element (the San Pellegrino or ginger ale or whatever) in a pitcher and let it sit in the fridge for at least 10 minutes, but longer is fine if you make it ahead. Add the sparkling element just before serving over ice.