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Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

Pimm’s Number 6 Cup

Written by Giles MacDonogh

Pimm’s Number 6 Cup

Posted: 1st August 2018

In the earlier part of this summer at least, I spent a lot of time thinking about Pimm’s. There was a rumour that the Number 6, Vodka Cup had been revived and that there would be a series of launch events involving the great and good. Being neither great nor good, these passed me by, but I saw pictures of the usual slebs slurping away at Pimm’s cocktails. Then a bottle was promised and I planted some borage specially. The sample failed to materialise and the borage was attacked by a malevolent fly that turned it black and lank before it wilted and died. That made no odds as I still hadn’t had the Pimm’s. Then one evening we were sitting down to dinner drinking red wine from a bottle in an ice-bucket when there was a knock at the door. It was some never-previously-seen neighbours from three houses to the north. They had had ‘this bag’ for some time. I had a quick look: there was the Pimm’s Number 6 and a few mixers too: it had finally made it.

Two boiling days later I made up a couple of drinks for my daughter and myself. I found cucumber and strawberries and in the absence of borage, I picked some fresh mint from my herb-garden. Some people used to throw in apples and slices of orange in the past. I remembered that too much greenery became tiresome by the second round, so I went easy. Also party-givers tended to make it up in a punchbowl, so that the brewage quickly began to look jaded and was diluted by too much ice added in an attempt to revive it.

When I finally made up my Pimm’s the other day, it proved a moment to savour; a properly Proustian evocation as a profusion of Pimm’s memories came flooding back. Pimm’s was a drink enjoyed above all in May and June, and therefore a marketing-man’s (or woman’s) nightmare. Even more of a bind was the fact it required a lot of kit (where the hell did you obtain borage if you didn’t have any in the garden?). Drinks marketeers want things that will sell all the year round and can be adapted to a hundred different uses. As an undergraduate I associated Pimm’s above all with Eights’ Week, when the colleges raced their boats on the river and it was served up in the ornamental boat houses at the bottom of Christ Church Meadow. In my memories of Pimm’s the sun is naturally always shining.

There was very little interest in the oarsmen, who came racing past us at regular intervals, but there was a lot of interest in Pimm’s. One year a man in a straw hat and a stripy blazer fed me eight whole pints of it. He later read for the church and became a college chaplain but then some unexplained faux-pas blighted his career, much as that fly destroyed my borage. I suspect his designs were less than honourable, but the Pimm’s failed to have the desired effect and after a series of adventures with a girl who might have been conjured out of a painting by Titian I ended up falling down the stairs at the Union Society with an Asian lady in my arms. The lady is now sadly dead, but on that occasion she recovered of her fall and went on to make quite a name for herself in politics.

Of course we were aware of the reason why the would-be chaplain was unlikely to succeed: a glass of Pimm’s just isn’t that strong once you have drowned it in lemonade. Some people hoped to counteract this by adding more gin (this was the gin-based Number 1 Cup) or topping it up with cider. There were even those who put in champagne, but I think that would have been a waste. The college barmen used a double measure from an optic, which meant the usual half pint was unlikely to go to your head.

Pimm’s weakness is really its strength: you can serve it as a refreshing drink in the middle of the afternoon without too much ill-effect, and it seems to suit a certain sort of almost vanished Englishness: sleek lawns, men and women in spotless whites playing croquet or bowls or cricket, randy Anglican clergymen in straw hats and stripy blazers; in short the full Monty; an antediluvian vision of the past, often invoked in the pages of the Daily Mail, but in most respects gone forever. Perhaps for this reason, the few occasions when I have drunk Pimm’s in Vienna or Paris have never seemed quite right. It would be far better suited to India and other former colonies where cricket is played.

We can but try, however, to bring back the flavour of the lost world. To make a good glass of Pimm’s it is probably best to use a superior lemonade such as Fever Tree (mixers have actually improved) and it is worthwhile keeping everything (glasses included) in the fridge to make it properly cold: which will make the drink taste less sweet. Then you do need some of that greenery-yallery: mint (or borage – but not both), cucumbers and strawberries and perhaps apples. Slices of cucumber are I think a sine qua non: the cucumber was the active addition in my memory game the other day.

The revival of the Number 6 Cup has doubled the range of summer Pimm’s Cups. There is, apparently, still a Number 3, Brandy Cup, billed as a winter drink, but I find the idea of drinking Pimm’s in winter untempting. The other cups: whisky, bourbon and rum have been scrapped and not even I can remember them now from my all-too distant youth, but it is good that the Vodka Cup has returned to us, and I for one was grateful for my trip down memory lane.

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Giles MacDonogh

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