Felicity Cloake's perfect summer cup. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the GuardianThe sun’s out, which must mean it’s Pimm’s o’clock – or time for a DIY version of the bittersweet digestif. But, should you pair your gin with vermouth or with sherry? And should you pare back your garnish or go for a full-on fruit salad?It’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the start of the British summer; is it that first day of weak March sunshine that sends the nation into a state of collective coatless delirium? The first sighting of a topless builder? Or that glorious first glass of alcoholic fruit salad known as Pimm’s, the best of the season for the memories it brings rushing back of summers past and pitchers drained?
Created in the early 19th century by one James Pimm as a digestif to serve in his London oyster bars, the brand (now owned by multinational Diageo) has fairly cornered the market in summertime refreshment: 230,000 glasses of the stuff will be put away this Wimbledon fortnight. But, though I’m not one of those dreary sorts who affect to dislike its sweet-yet-slightly-bitter citrussy flavour, by this point in the summer, I have begun to wonder whether I could improve upon it at home (and save some money in the process). Many have tried to crack the recipe, but have any of them aced it?
The exact formulation for Pimm’s is a closely guarded secret and, in the manner of such valuable secrets, the marketing department trumpets the fact that the six people in the know are not allowed to travel together (a piece of information that gives me hope; six makes it a considerably less-secret recipe than say, Irn Bru, whose devilish ingredients are known only to two people). All they will say is that it’s gin-based and flavoured with a secret blend of herbs and spices. So far, so KFC.
Tasting it unencumbered by mixers for possibly the first time in my life, I find it surprisingly rich and sweet – rather like the kind of wine served at holy communion in dusty parish churches in the deepest shires – with an orangey bitterness that lingers on the tongue. In fact, it has much more in common with other digestifs (such as Fernet Branca or, dare I say it, Jägermeister) than I would have guessed.
The copycat recipes I try take this in several different directions. American drinks writer Marcia Simmons infuses gin and sweet vermouth with bitter orange peel and fresh orange for 24 hours for a concoction that’s overwhelmingly citrussy – drinkable, certainly, but not quite Pimm’s. Imbibe magazine, which clearly read my tasting notes, mixes its gin with sweet sherry or port (the latter, I think, would be a mistake) and adds sweet vermouth (which supplies that characteristic bitter edge) and orangey triple sec – but in these quantities I find it too sweet.
Georgina Hartley, author of the From the Larder blog, uses a mixture of gin, sweet vermouth, triple sec and aperol, which proves richer and sweeter than the original – nice diluted with tonic or soda, but too much with lemonade. Victoria Moore keeps things simple in her cheat’s Pimm’s, using equal parts gin, red vermouth and Cointreau (a triple sec), which proves amazingly effective as a quick substitute – in fact, some of my testers prefer it to the original, its slightly drier flavour giving it “more depth”. This one’s well worth a go for keen cocktail fiends who happen to keep these things in stock (red vermouth is an essential ingredient in that fine drink the negroni, so it’s a handy chap to have around in any case), but it’s a bit more aggressively bitter and citrussy than the real thing.
On side-by-side tasting, however, I’m disappointed how thin and caramel-sweet Pimm’s is, so rather than attempting to recreate it exactly, I’m going to bump up the gin content, and add a soupçon of triple sec for its citrus flavour, a slug of red vermouth and Aperol for bitterness, and just a dash of angostura bitters to give it some extra edge. Feel free to play about with the balance to suit your own tastebuds.
Strangely, homemade lemonade, as used by both cocktail legend Dale DeGroff and Imbibe, just doesn’t work here – and neither, as Moore observes, does the “fancy cloudy stuff”. Both are just too assertively lemony, whereas clear lemonade (not Sprite, as Simmons recommends) lends the drink a gentler, sweeter flavour. Too sweet for some – Moore actually prefers her summer cup with tonic as she finds lemonade “too cloying”, while the Larousse cocktail guide proves the French know nothing about the subject by using soda water, which makes its version taste as underwhelming as a well-iced Pimm’s that’s been abandoned in the garden during a freak summer rainstorm.
Americans seem to be keen on Pimm’s with ginger ale, a combination I have never encountered this side of the pond (and, believe me, I’ve got some serious experience in this field). The fieriness doesn’t really work for me; this should be a cooling drink that slips down the throat with dangerous ease, which is why I love Hartley’s delicately flavoured cucumber, verbena and mint-infused syrup, though I do find it too sweet when topped up with lemonade. Sparkling water, however, is perfect. Salvatore Calabrese suggests topping the drink up with champagne. Like the “turbo Pimm’s” served by my college bar, supercharged with extra gin or vodka, this is only a good idea if you’re not planning to sit around in the sun all afternoon glugging glass after glass of the stuff.
“Don’t make a fruit salad,” Moore pleads, and I’m inclined to agree: a glass half-full of soggy fruit is no one’s idea of a good time. Though you’re perfectly welcome to use lemon or apple if you must (though the latter has an unattractive tendency to discolour), I think all you need is a curl of cucumber, which looks more handsome than the diced stuff, and a few strawberries – because, though yes, they do go a bit mushy after a bit, the only thing more redolent of a British summer than Pimm’s is a warm, sharp, sweet strawberry.
Herb wise, I’d steer clear of Simmons’s sage or thyme, and stick with the wonderful cucumber flavour and vivid blue flowers of borage if you can find it (I had trouble this year), or cooling mint – but keep the leaves whole so they don’t dissolve into compost at the bottom of the glass. Add the garnish to the glasses as you serve, rather than putting them in the jug, to avoid strawberry envy. If you’re planning to stand around outside in the sun, then an ice-filled glass is a must, though make sure the ingredients are well-chilled before use. Just as you will be after drinking a couple of these.
The perfect summer cup
For the mixer (makes enough for 4)
200g white sugar
½ cucumber, sliced (not peeled)
2 generous sprigs of mint
1 unwaxed lemon
600ml cold sparkling water OR 225ml clear lemonade
For the base (per drink)
25ml red vermouth
1 tsp triple sec
1 tsp Aperol
½ tsp dry amontillado sherry
OR 75ml Pimm’s or other summer cup
For the garnish (per drink)
1 curl of cucumber peel
Sprig of borage or mint
If making the mixer, bring the sugar to the boil with 200ml water, stirring until dissolved. Add the cucumber, mint and the grated zest of the lemon and simmer for a couple of minutes, then take off the heat and leave to infuse and cool (which should take about an hour). Strain, add the juice of half the lemon and chill until ready to use.
For the base, mix together all the ingredients (multiplying as necessary) and taste. Adjust to your preference, if necessary.
Hull the strawberries and halve or quarter according to size. Quarter-fill a tall glass per person with ice, and then add the strawberries and cucumber peel followed by the alcohol.
If using the homemade mixer, combine it with the cold sparkling water, then add this to the glass. Top with the borage or mint sprigs and serve immediately. Repeat.
Summer cup: are you a devotee of Pimm’s, or one of the younger pretenders to the crown – or do you prefer to make your own? And, if you’re not a fan, which other long’n’lovely punches will you be cooling down with this summer?