I lived in Northern England for a summer several years ago (there was a lack of employment and a girl involved in that arrangement), a period punctuated by drizzle, pretty gardens, well-done Sunday roasts, chippies staffed by nice ladies who'd never met a half Asian kid before, more drizzle, and the occasional trip south to Cambridge where we'd hope to catch the one or two beautifully sunny days of the summer to spend sipping Pimm's cups by the River Cam.
For myself and many others, it's a drink that instantly evokes England. I see Pimm's and I think damp rolling green hills, punting down winding rivers, summer suits and boat races, manicured lawns and garden parties.
Its lack of popularity stateside has always surprised me, given how tasty Pimm's is. It might be because it has been pigeonholed into one cocktail and rarely mixed with anything else. And it's a pretty androgynous cocktail at that: Pimm's itself borders on the macho with its gin base, strong hint of bitter quinine, and citrus pith flavors. Meanwhile, the garnishes fall squarely into the "umbrella drink" category—sliced strawberries and apples, oranges and lemons, cucumber, and the occasional sprig of mint. But get over this odd juxtaposition, and what a drink it is!
Like many herbal liquors, Pimm's got its start in 1823 when James Pimm began serving the concoction as a digestive tonic to patrons of his London oyster bar. Flavored with citrus, sugar, and herbal extracts, it's essentially a bottled gin sling. By the mid 19th century, Pimm's No. 2 Cup and No. 3 Cup (the former based on Scotch, the latter on brandy) were introduced, and the line was further expanded to rum, rye, and vodka variants in the 1960's.
These days, only the original gin-based version remains widely available, though you can still occasionally find Pimm's No. 6 in England and a modified version of No. 3 (now known as the Pimm's Winter Cup) available seasonally in the winter.
The standard Pimm's cup is made by mixing Pimm's with "white lemonade" (a.k.a. Sprite or 7-Up) along with chopped fruit and ice. Fruit choices can vary, but for me, the three absolute essentials are the cucumber, strawberry, and orange. Pimm's cups are not particularly strong (though they have a way of sneaking up on you—just ask Ed who was nursing his all afternoon last week), so when I feel like really tasting my drink, I'll cut it with a bit of extra gin.
Pimm's Cup is a cocktail well-suited for making by the pitcherful, by the way.