As an English blogger, writing about a subject that is dominated by American spirits, American drinks and American bloggers, it’s easy to loose sight of what the British brought to the world of mixed drinks. We may not have invented cocktails, and we may have a terrible cocktail scene in all but a handful of large cities, but we did bring London Dry gin to the world, and we did come up with the fruit cup.
Back in the early nineteenth century, Londoners were mad for fruit cups. An aromatic mixture of wines, spirits, spices and fruit, they were often sold as tonics with supposed health benefits, and it was common for pubs to have their own unique “house cup”. One such pub was the Oyster Bar of Lombard Street, a City-based tavern ran by a certain James Pimm. Pimm invented his house cup sometime between 1823 and 1840 and it soon became so popular that it was being mass-produced and sold by the bottle, first to other bars and gentlemen’s clubs and eventually to the public.
Today Pimm’s is most famous for its use in the Pimm’s Cup cocktail, a relatively simple mixture that is a popular summer drink here in Britain, if with something of a mocking reputation for being popular with the upper classes. Whatever your social status though, on a hot summer day like today the Pimm’s Cup makes for the perfect afternoon drink – cool, refreshing and light enough that you don’t get too tipsy.
We’ll get to the Pimm’s Cup cocktail shortly, but first… a comparison! You didn’t think I could write two posts in a row that didn’t compare something did you? Alongside the original Pimm’s, there are several other similar products available to fill your fruit cup needs. Each has that familiar deep burgundy colour, but which is best for your Pimm’s Cup cocktail?
Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
Pimm’s is made from a gin base to which a secret list of ingredients, probably including fruits, spices and fortified wines, is added. It has a deep, aromatic nose with hints of citrus and a certain bitter-sweet undercurrent. The aromatics continue in the actual taste, along with some spice and sweetness, though the finish has a decided bitter edge and a slight heat.
Unlike, say, a sweet vermouth, the aromatics are not overwhelming and there is a lightness to it which no doubt is helped by the fact that, like many older spirits, Pimm’s has had it’s strength cut in recent years from 34.6% to 25%.
Austin’s is sold by budget supermarket Aldi, and with its similar name and labelling is a clear attempt at a Pimm’s copy. It is made from a base of aromatised wine which is fortified with grain spirits and flavoured with fruit. It costs just a fraction of what a bottle of Pimm’s does, though as you might expect it is less alcoholic than it’s older rival.
The nose is a little milder than Pimm’s, and noticeably sweeter. It is however impressively nuanced, with just as much complexity. Unfortunately though when it comes to taste Austin’s falls a little flat. It tastes very watery, and while there are some aromatics and spice they are short-lived and dominated by the sweetness. It lacks any of the bitterness Pimm’s has and the finish is fleeting and unmemorable.
In fairness to Austin’s, in a Pimm’s Cup cocktail it does fare a lot better, and while you will want to increase the amount you use it makes an okay substitute for Pimm’s, especially if you’re making a large bowl of drink and can’t afford the real deal. Last time I made a batch of each, most of my friends couldn’t tell the difference between the two, so in a party situation it’s a no brainer.
Plymouth Fruit Cup
Plymouth’s answer to Pimm’s was launched in 2003, though sadly was discontinued a few years later after apparently failing to penetrate Pimm’s dominance in the market. Luckily it’s still available online and in the occasional off-license if you look hard enough. Plymouth Fruit Cup has a base of Plymouth gin which is mixed with fruit liqueurs, vermouths, aromatic bitters and citrus extracts. It is bottled at a stronger 30% ABV, which Plymouth claims is the perfect strength for a fuller flavour.
It certainly has the strongest nose of the three, with a strong aromatic fragrance reminding me of sweet vermouth. There is also a slight suggestion of gin, and a bit of citrus. In the mouth it is a real assault of flavours, musky with plenty of aromatics, citrus, and spice, and an initial sweetness that quickly dissolves in to a complex bitter flavour. It has none of the lightness the other two spirits had, and certainly validates the claim of having a “fuller flavour”. My personal favourite, though sadly I have to use it sparingly.
Home-made Fruit Cup
If you can’t get hold of Pimm’s where you are, you can make an improvised version by combining 2 parts gin, 2 parts sweet vermouth and 1 part orange curaçao. I have read that Bols Dry Orange works well, so I gave the home-made version a try with that along with Plymouth gin and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth.
The result is an interesting mixture, not quite resembling Pimm’s but with some similar characteristics. It’s actually closer to Plymouth Fruit Cup, with plenty of bitterness and a decent strength to it. I wouldn’t really recommend using it over Pimm’s or Plymouth, but if you don’t have any choice then it’s not a terrible substitute.
- ¼ pitcher Pimm’s (or substitute)
- 1 orange
- 1 lemon
- ½ lime
- ½ cucumber
- 5 dashes orange bitters
- 2 dashes celery bitters
- Cut fruit in to half-wheels and the cucumber in to slices. Add to the pitcher along with the Pimm’s and bitters and allow to sit in a fridge for several hours. When about to serve, add ice to pitcher and top off with lemonade. Declare “Anyone for Pimm’s?” in a R.P. accent. Serve in tall, ice-filled glasses with assorted fruit as garnish.
There are as many recipes for the Pimm’s Cup as there are people who drink it, with various garnishes and mixers used. Some like to add strawberries, others like to use ginger beer. For me though the only garnishes used should be cucumber, orange, lemon and lime, and the only mixer lemonade (or Sprite for you Americans). I also like to let the fruit and Pimm’s sit for several hours in the fridge before serving, which lets the fruit and cucumber impart their flavours in to the Pimm’s more fully.
I’ve also recently started adding a few dashes of bitters to the mixture. You don’t want to go overboard as the drink already has bitter components, but a little really add something to the drink. The Bitter Truth’s celery bitters, now available to purchase, work great as do Angostura Orange bitters.
Ultimately though the Pimm’s Cup is a drink you’ll want to experiment with to find what works for your palate. Just don’t ever skip on the cucumber… it may seem an odd addition, but it’s essential for a good Pimm’s Cup…
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