Pimm’s Cup: The History of a Classic Cocktail

Grab a sprig of mint, your favorite fruit and a fancy glass because Pimms is making a comeback!

pimms cup gin

Pimm’s Cup is a classic cocktail, full of history, nostalgia and mysterious ingredients. It’s the artisan cocktail lover’s dream, the sort of drink you sip at trendy bars staffed by a mixologist, not a bartender. It’s a drink with brow. Pimm’s Cup is a concoction of mint, chopped fruit, lemonade, and Pimm’s, a British gin-based liqueur that’s the foundation of the eponymous cocktail. It’s deep red and flavored with unspecified herbal botanicals, spices, and caramelized orange. Yep, a secret recipe. Pimm’s has made a comeback in the age of artisan cocktails.

The story goes that Pimm’s Cup was invented in New Orleans in the 1940s, at the 221-year-old French Quarter joint Napoleon House. The owner was looking for a cocktail that was lower in alcohol, so his patrons wouldn’t be blotto by 7 p.m. Bar profit margins depend on drinkers who pace themselves and keep drinking till the wee hours. Pimm’s Cup fit the bill. It’s 25 percent alcohol, usually served one part booze to three parts mixer. A New Orleans tradition was born.

This story makes sense, because New Orleans is the county seat of cocktails, having given the world the first ever cocktail, the Sazerac. And its drinking culture is legendary.

But –  New Orleans is not the birthplace of Pimm’s Cup. London is. Yes, New Orleans’ legendary drink is a colonial inheritance from Britain.

Pimm’s was invented in the 1840s by a James Pimm, proprietor of a London oyster bar. Alcohol was considered medicine in the 19th century, so Pimm marketed his concoction as a health tonic. It was a gigantic hit, so he began bottling his top secret concoction and selling it. It spread throughout the British empire, to India, Canada, Australia and Caribbean. No one’s sure how it ended up in New Orleans. Did a Pimm’s-loving British expat bring it? Did a World War II vet bring some home? No one knows for sure. But what’s certain is that it’s so popular in New Orleans, they’ve claimed it as their own.

Note: New Orleans also takes credit for being the birthplace of Mardi Gras. It’s not. That honor belongs to Mobile, Ala., an older city three hours east of New Orleans where the first Mardi Gras parade rolled down the streets of the city in 1711. New Orleans thought that was cool as heck, and had their own parade  15 years later. New Orleans, we love you, but you need to stop stealing credit for cultural contributions. You do own jazz, hands down.

Back to our story.

There are variations on Pimm’s Cup. It’s like gumbo, where everyone has their own take on it. Mixologists add twists, some add a second alcohol to it. But the central ingredient is, of course, Pimm’s.  There’s a British version of Pimm’s Cup. And an American version. The key difference is the Brits add lemonade to it. New Orleans adds Sprite. Some U.S. versions float chunks of fruit in it, an apostasy to Pimm’s Cup purists. The more fruit you put in a drink, the sillier it becomes. Fruity drinks are for cruise ships and TGI Fridays.