Saturday, 9 June 2012

Pimm's O'Clock?

Here's an article I wrote last month, which seems particularly apt given the Jubille weekend's arrival. It was commisioned by the University Caterer.

Spring is turning to summer, and with the mercury rising rapidly up the thermometer, our thoughts turn to the quintessential English drinks. Pimm’s Number One cup is almost ubiquitous during the warmer months here in England: Henley Regatta and Wimbledon simply wouldn’t be the same without it, it has become synonymous with outdoor events and even appears to have become, dare I say it, a rather patriotic beverage.

However, as freely as one might order a glass of Pimm’s, it would occur to very few of us to wonder what it actually is. Pimm’s has been so successful in dominating its category that most of its competitors are simply referred to as being “like Pimm’s”. Very few other brands ever manage to obtain such a strong-hold on the market place, with notable exceptions being Guinness (Irish stout) and Baileys (cream liqueur). It’s a direct parallel to the Hoover / vacuum cleaner situation.

Very few people would refer to their Pimm’s as a ‘fruit cup’, but that’s precisely what it is. Industry domination on this scale doesn’t just come overnight. Pimm’s was first produced in 1823 by James Pimm, the son of a Kent farmer running an oyster bar in the City. He offered his beverage to patrons of his oyster bar as a digestif to enjoy after eating.

The name ‘No. 1 cup’ comes from the small tankard in which the drink was served. So popular did the No. 1 cup prove that it went into large scale production to supply other bars in 1851, and was later made available to the public via hawkers (street vendors) on bicycles throughout London. A fruit cup is simply a spirit (usually gin) which is sweetened and flavoured with various fruits, herbs, and spices, and diluted. It is intended for drinking ‘tall’, mixed with lemonade or ginger beer, and historically appears to be an almost exclusively English indulgence.

As the popularity of Pimm’s increased, so too did its range. The gin-based No. 1 cup recipe, which remains unchanged to this day, was joined by five further variations: No. 2 cup used a Scotch whisky base, No. 3 brandy, No. 4 rum, No.5 rye whiskey, and No.6 vodka. Apart from the original, only the No. 6 has stood the test of time, but even that is produced in far smaller quantities than the No. 1 now. Although the official recipes go only as high as No. 6, recent years have seen enterprising bartenders developing their own recipes. None of these are official, but it is generally accepted that ‘No. 7’ refers to a concoction based on tequila, whereas Absinthe based fruit cups are usually referred to as ‘No. 8 cup’.

If the thought of making your own fruit cup is an attractive one, I would encourage you to experiment with a few different recipes, tweaking and changing until you find your own ‘secret recipe’. To start you off, follow these basic ratios:

• 3 parts gin (or alternative base spirit)
• 1 part red vermouth
• 1 part curacao (e.g. Triple Sec, Grand Marnier, Cointreau etc.)
• Lemon peel
• Orange peel

Home made fruit cup. Have a go, and let me know how you get on!

Once these basics are in, you can play around with adding the juice of the fruit, substituting other citrus peels (lime, grapefruit), or adding in herbs and spices (cinnamon sticks, star anise) in varying proportions. Leave the ingredients to combine in a bottle or jar for 24 hours, then strain into a clean bottle. At this point, mix your fruit cup about 1:3 with lemonade or ginger beer and serve over ice with plenty of fruit. Which brings me to my next point…
Pubs, bars and restaurants please take note: Whether you choose to make your own fruit cup, or take advantage of the 180 years’ experience of Pimm’s, it is imperative that you serve it well. Customers in the summer can, and will, order Pimm’s almost anywhere they go, which means they will be judging you against your rivals on a like-for-like basis. A couple of half-melted ice cubes and a limp piece of lemon simply won’t cut it, so be sure to get the serve right every time.

In this instance, we’re looking for a glass packed full of ice to keep the liquid and the glass cooler for longer, avoiding the drink becoming diluted too quickly. Next, add the liquid ingredients – remembering Pimm’s is usually served as a double (50ml) measure. And last, but by no means least, add in freshly cut pieces of lemon, lime, orange, cucumber, mint, and strawberries. These can, if necessary, be prepared pre-service, but should be kept chilled to avoid spoilage.

Happy Jubilee weekend!


  1. Thanks Will- now I can make my own pimms! Shame I didn't find this when the sun was still here :(

  2. I think I'll try this over the weekend. Quite fancy putting an earl grey tea bag or two in as well.