Friday, June 24, 2011

DC's "No. 1" Cocktail: The Pimm's Cup Around Town

With summer officially beginning this week, it won't be long until the dog-days will be breathing down our neck. As DC's official Rickey month soon approaches (July) I'm exploring refreshing elixirs that will cool your body, mind and soul. With Wimbledon also having begun this week the classic Pimm's Cup couldn't be a more appropriate cocktail to feature. An old export from our British friends, the Pimm's Cup is slowly making a comeback on cocktail menus nationwide and in DC. The Washington Post's Jason Wilson recently wrote about his favorite version (notably preferring his being made with 7-Up) while Fritz Hahn raved about PS7's twist on the Cup.

The Pimm's Cup is a cocktail that can take on a number of forms but its basic version consists of Pimm's No. 1, lemonade/lemon-lime soda (lemon-lime soda is called "lemonade" by the Brits) or ginger ale. It can be embellished with lemon and orange slices and a sprig of mint, but a cucumber garnish is mandatory. In a 2006 piece on NPR, Michelle Norris interviewed Martin Joyce, director of catering for Wimbledon, who described how the All England Club prepares the "No. 1 Cup." Served in a highball glass half filled with ice, one measure of Pimm's is topped off with lemonade (or lemon-lime soda such as 7-Up), and garnished with half a strawberry, a sprig of mint and some cucumber skin.

Pimm's was first developed in England by James Pimm in the 1820s as a digestive, originally served as a tonic in a tankard, hence the name "cup." The ingredients have been kept a guarded secret to this day. It is gin-based with a touch of quinine along with a medley of herbs, botanicals and fruit. Straight up, it has a developed herbal flavor, almost like a refined Jaeger Meister, with a sweet and delicate bitter finish. The version sold in stores today has a lower alcohol content than the original (down from 40% to just 25% proof). Pimm's No. 1 is considered not a spirit but rather a bottled cocktail. It is therefore recommended not to use more than 2-3 parts lemonade to one part Pimm's, so as not to overly dilute the flavor.

The typical Pimm's Cup has an ice tea-esque quality with earthy/herbal tones brightened with sweet lemonade or lemon-lime soda. It's a light drink (both in structure and alcohol content) which is why it's perfect as a summer quencher - a straight forward and simple alternative to the many sugary, summery drinks we have come to know.

In America you can find the Pimm's Cup traditionally being served at polo matches. What, you don't have season passes to the Capitol Polo Club? Hard to believe, but there are plenty of locations that serve up the "No. 1 Cup" in DC. In exploring what our city has to offer, I visited a few local watering holes.

Bar Pilar served a Pimm's Cup with mint, orange slice, cucumber, house-made ginger syrup and soda water. It had a well-rounded flavor with the ginger coming through both on the nose and palate. The orange accentuated the Pimm's herbal base. The Pimm's-to-ginger soda ratio may have been a bit off, leaving the Pimm's a tad diluted, but it had a smooth and fresh texture. It started off sweet but mellowed as the ice melted. It had a clean, light finish.

The Passenger serves up quite a unique Pimm's Cup that goes beyond the traditional recipe. Though a true Brit would never add a second spirit, they add Seagram's gin, along with lemon juice, house ginger ale as well as Blenheim (red cap) ginger ale, garnished with cucumber. It has a great depth of flavor and definitely gets an alcohol boost from the gin which also heightens the botanical bouquet. The Bleheim red cap ginger ale (their spiciest) adds a noticeable peppery, ginger bite. Blenheim describes their red cap ginger ale as going "down as smoothly as a firecracker exploding in your throat" so the regular house ginger ale supplied a good counter-balance. The Pimm's No. 1 herbal flavor came through well laced with fresh cucumber, which makes me believe they also muddled cucumber into the mix. Overall the Passenger's Cup was slightly sweeter than most Pimm's Cups I have had, but its spicy edge left me wanting more of this dynamic variation. (Pictured: The Pimm's Cup at The Passenger)

At the Tabard Inn they mix Pimm's No.1, fresh citrus, cucumber, ginger and soda. Somewhat similar to Bar Pilar's version, the ginger shines with a noticeable spicy bite and worked splendid as an agent to accentuate the other ingredients. It strikes a smooth balance between sweetness and the herbaceous character of the Pimm's. This is a real body cooler. (Left: The Pimm's Cup at Tabard Inn)

While meeting a friend for lunch at the Peacock Cafe in Georgetown I had to try their version which they call the "Pimps Cup." It consists of Pimm's No. 1, fresh-squeezed lemonade and diced cucumber. As I lifted it to my mouth the aromatics of the broken-down cucumber burst forward. The lemonade gave the Cup an Arnold-Palmer-esque appeal and had a sweet linger. As the diced cucumber got swept into my mouth, it acted as a natural sweetener and helped raise the profile of the Pimm's.

I had what was arguably the worst Pimm's Cup in DC at Old Ebbitt Grill. When the bartender placed the Cup in front of me I thought its presentation was well executed with a paper-thin slice of cucumber jetting straight up from the rim. When I raised it to my nose it smelled of almost nothing but the aromatic garnish. Upon first sip I realized a key ingredient was missing, namely any type of lemon, lime or ginger component. What was served to me was Pimm's No. 1 with soda...period. When I asked the bartender if this was their standard way of preparing the cocktail she said "this is how I learned it" and then informed me that some people request it with lemon-lime soda or ginger ale, as if having it that way required a special order. As I pondered what to replace my botched drink with, not knowing if I needed to spell out in writing what it should contain, the Old Ebbitt "Pimm's spritzer" did give me some added insight into how important a role a sweet and tangy counterpart plays in completing the Pimm's Cup, like how salt brings out so much flavor in cooking. I was sorry to see one of DC's most revered historical establishments validate Tom Sietsema's recent demotion to a half-star rating in the Washington Post. (Pictured: Old Ebbitt's "Pimm's Spritzer?")

On a much more positive note, I had the pleasure of attending a private function tended by Jon Harris of The Gibson. One of the featured cocktails was the Pimm's Cup. Along with the Pimm's No. 1 he used Fentiman's Victorian Lemonade, garnished with cucumber, orange, lemon and mint. It was like a garden in my mouth. The ingredients, though simple, were tightly built. The drink had a balance of sweet and bitter with a touch of sour. The lemony Fentiman's brought a not-too-sweet brightness and its fermented structure added some tang. As I sipped it my nose was filled with the aroma of mint and cucumber, providing a sensory experience of sweetness without actually sweetening the drink. This Cup had a solid structure. (Pictured: The Jon Harris Pimm's Cup)

The Pimm's Cup is an excellent drink to have around if you are entertaining at home during the summer. It's incredibly simple to make and inexpensive (locally, Pimm's No. 1 runs just over $20 a bottle). Though 7-Up or other ready-made lemon-lime sodas will produce a great Cup, I was most impressed with those that incorporated ginger and fresh lemon juice, giving it some extra zing - all working in harmony with the Pimm's.

Here is a straight-forward version I like to make which uses homemade ginger syrup.

2 oz. Pimm's No. 1
1/2 oz. Ginger Syrup*
Juice of half a lemon
Slice of Cucumber
Sprig of Mint

Fill a glass with ice (preferably large-cubed), add the Pimm's, ginger syrup, squeeze in the lemon through a fine sieve and stir to incorporate. Top off with soda (I like to make my own with a water carbonator) and lightly stir once more. Garnish with cucumber and mint.

*The ginger syrup couldn't be easier to make. Take two thumb-sized pieces of ginger, peel and finely grate (a microplane works best) into a one-quart sauce pan. Add one cup of sugar (I like to use evaporated cane sugar which adds a slight caramel flavor and color) and one cup of water. Stir and bring mixture to a boil. As soon as it boils turn the heat off, cover and allow it to steep for 15-20 minutes. Using a fine sieve to filter out the pulp, pour syrup into a container, allow it to come to room temperature and then refrigerate.


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