Drink of the Day: Pimm’s Number One Cup [a true cup and a drink that was wrong to include in Boardwalk Empire]

Judged according to the classic concept of the cup, the drink so often served as the Pimm’s Number One Cup (so called for the inclusion of the flavored gin liqueur called Pimm’s Liqueur Number One) is not a cup at all. For it to be a true cup, it would have to be based on wine with only a minority amount of carbonated soft-drink. A traditional British ginger wine (a flat grape-raisin wine fermented with ginger) serves the purpose well, but there must be a wine base.

Historical Cup Definitions
  • “Cool-Cup. A beverage so called, usually composed of wine, water, lemon-peel, sugar and borage; and introduced at tables in warm weather.”
    English Dictionary  (Johnson, Todd and Chalmers; 1835)
  • “Cup. A beverage made with wine, usually iced, and with flavoring herbs.”
    Thesaurus Dictionary of the English Language  (Francis March; 1906)
  • “cup, n. 11. A name for various beverages consisting of wine sweetened and flavoured with various ingredients and usually iced; as claret-cup, etc.”
    Oxford English Dictionary  (Oxford University Press; 1928)
  • “CUP – A beverage made of wine, usually iced, and with flavoring herbs and fruits, served in garnished pitchers, to be poured at table.”
    Bottoms Up  (Ted Saucier; 1951)

There is much confusion between the mixed drink of the middle nineteenth century called Pimm’s Cup and the bottled liqueur launched around 1930 called Pimm’s Liqueur Number One.

In the middle nineteenth century, James Pimm made and sold a mixed drink he called, “Pimm’s Cup” in his oyster restaurant in London. It was based on wine, stiffened with a little gin, and contained the sorts of aromatic ingredients in cups at the time. The success of that drink led Pimm to offer “Pimm’s Cup Number Two,” and so on. Like the first Pimm’s Cup, these were drinks mixed in the restaurant rather than bottle products.

In 1865, Pimm sold his restaurant. In 1887, under yet new ownership, the restaurant became a franchise as “Pimm’s Oyster Houses.” When did the company that operated Pimm’s Oyster Houses decide to get into the business of selling bottled drinks? The first patent for Pimm’s Liqueur Number One in the U.S.A. was filed in 1933. One might think that the year 1933 has more to do with the repeal of the Volstead act. But, the patent in Canada, with much closer economic and cultural ties to Britain, and a country that never had prohibition, the patent is dated 1937. The patent in Kenya, then a direct British colony, was obtained in 1932. 1932 is probably very close in time to the original British patent and launch date of bottled Pimm’s liqueur. 1930 is probably a very close educated guess for the first launch, anywhere, of Pimm’s liqueur as a bottled product.

But, since awareness of the cup as type of drink with a clear, essential, identity, it is understandable that imperfectly-educated drinks scholars who read of James Pimm serving his Pimm’s Cup in 1851 will confuse that mixed drink for the bottled product.

Even though Pimm’s liqueur was not around until about 1930, it was meant to be the rump ingredient in a Pimm’s Cup. This is much like Falernum liqueur was meant to be the rump of Falernum Punch, which it could be transformed into by adding fresh lime juice. Likewise, Swedish Punch Liqueur can be transformed into Swedish Punch by mixing in fresh lemon juice. To transform Pimm’s liqueur into a Pimm’s cup, one would have to add the ingredients that would have been left out of the liqueur because they are not shelf stable enough to be bottled with it. One ingredient would certainly be the little bit of charged water found in any cup. The other might be the wine base. The most appropriate wine base might be traditional British ginger wine (a flat grape-raisin wine fermented with ginger).

Assuming the Englishmen had not by 1930 forgotten the form of the quintessentially-English cup, it seems likely that the first Pimm’s Cups made with bottled Pimm’s liqueur was still made as a true cup, rather than as the Pimm’s & Ginger-ale Highball or Pimm’s & Lemon-lime Highball that is almost universally served under its name today.

Perhaps some American bar-tender trying to service an Englishman’s request sometime after 1933 (when Pimm’s liqueur was first imported to the U.S.A.), having no ginger wine in the bar (and not even knowing what it was) simply used ginger ale instead and made the more familiar (to him) highball-type drink. We can’t know about that, of course. But the Pimm’s Number One Cup is a much better drink than the fancy Pimm’s Number One Highball that is passed for it almost everywhere. Try it.

P.S.  There is a scene in the television series “Boardwalk Empire” where a character speaks just after the Volstead Act has gone into effect (‘prohibition’) in 1920 of needing Pimm’s Liqueur Number One for the Pimm’s Number One Cup. But, in 1920, bottled Pimm’s liqueur had not yet ever been imported to the U.S.A., and probably didn’t even exist yet.

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