New Orleanians have survived the worst of the summer heat, local restaurants are back from their August recesses, and we're into peak hurricane season. Pretty soon the oyster bars will be up and running again, and the Quarter will echo with the mating calls of wayward conventioneers.
But it's the last few weeks of the hot season that can frazzle the nerves. Luckily, there's a classic New Orleans cocktail that speaks to this seasonal insanity. It's a British-bred concoction called the Pimm's Cup, a light semi-fizzy tipple that can take the edge off a hot day without the "morning drinker's fog." Made with an obscure English liqueur, various citrus mixers and distinctive slice of fresh cucumber, the Pimm's Cup ranks as an old-school New Orleans classic -- and one best enjoyed inside dark bars during broad daylight.
The classic Pimm's Cup wouldn't qualify as an extreme drink in any sense of the word. Served in a narrow highball glass, this spritzer could be mistaken for a well-tanned Tom Collins were it not for its trademark cucumber garnish. On the tongue, it's simultaneously fresh and light, spicy and tart. A slight, citrusy acidity complements sweetness from lemon-lime soda or lemonade (barkeep's choice) as the cucumber provides clean, vegetal flavors and a satisfying crunch for the salad-deprived.
Because of its high refreshment-to-alcohol ratio, a properly made Pimm's Cup is a marathon drink particularly well suited to late summer in New Orleans. Afternoon wanderers can lift a few rounds at midday and still be in the mood for "proper cocktails" come happy hour. In England and its former Caribbean colonies, the Pimm's Cup rules the leisurely brunch scene and even more leisurely cricket scene, where matches often stretch into multiple days.
The cup's only active ingredient, Pimm's No. 1, is a low-octane (50 proof) liqueur with fruits, spices and herbs infused in gin. The liqueur was invented by London bar owner James Pimm in the 1880s along with five other versions based on different liquors. Sipped on its own, Pimm's No. 1 packs a spicy, medicinal wallop somewhere between Robitussin and rubbing alcohol with a few shakes of bitters thrown in for good measure.
The proper mixer -- usually a variation on the lemony theme -- transforms the orange-brown Pimm's into a distinctive summer highball. Older recipes call for a solid dose of lemonade topped with a spritz of club soda or ginger ale for a little fizz. In many modern bars, lemon-lime soda (Sprite or 7UP, take your pick) has replaced the lemonade/soda mix altogether, making the drink a simple "shot and bar gun" operation. Another common citrus substitution is bottled "sweet and sour mix," which is a lot more convenient than it is flavorful.
Besides the classic cucumber, garnishes run the gamut on this particular cocktail. Different recipes call for addition of herbs (bruised mint), fruits (orange sections, thin apple slices), and bar classics (lemon twists, lime wedges) to the mix. Again, the classic recipe calls for minimalist garnish: cucumber cut into rounds, spears or long slivers of peel with just enough pale flesh to provide in-the-glass structure. Sadly for Pimm's Cup purists, the cuke has become increasingly rare in local garnish trays, especially in stand-alone saloons. Here, restaurant bars have a distinct advantage in the flavor department, especially where the bar/kitchen relations allow for a quick raid of the salad station. In most bars, a lemon garnish has to suffice, unless you're dedicated enough to pack your own produce.
The Pimm's Cup has long been associated with Crescent City bar culture, thanks in large part to the historic Napoleon House. In business as a bar for more than a century, this gracefully decaying building at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis streets tops the field when it comes to the Pimm's Cup experience. The bar prominently features distillery-related paraphernalia, including a bar rack that pimps "PIMM'S -- The Light Refresher from England."
The choice of this particular signature drink at this bar has both historic and deeply ironic significance. In 1821, then-owner and former New Orleans mayor Nicolas Girod offered the building to Napoleon as a base of New World operations while the ex-emperor was imprisoned on St. Helena. After a storied career fighting British forces for Euro-domination, would the "Little Corporal" approve such an Anglified beverage?
Long ago adopted as the house specialty, the Napoleon House's version of the cocktail adheres pretty strictly to tradition -- a couple of ounces of Pimm's No. 1, a few good glugs of house lemonade, a splash of lemon soda for bubbles and a cucumber wheel garnish. Served in a slender frosted Collins glass, the classic variation sets the bar for sweet/tart balance and vegetal flavors. Any of the bow-tied bartenders can mix one up in the time it takes to pull a draft pint, with a foot-tall bust of Mssr. Bonaparte glowering over their shoulder all the while.
The Napoleon House also gets high marks for classic "afternoon bar" ambience. No matter how bright the sun blazes on the street, the whole room keeps its dark, atmospheric cool. Deep wood furniture and ancient plaster set the tone for a lazy afternoon refuge from blistering heat or sudden tropical showers. Patio fans make a beeline for the palmy courtyard tables, but before the north winds arrive, cooler heads will relax in the indoor chill. The ochre walls are plastered with yellowed Napoleon paintings and worn through to brick in places. Classical tunes seem perfectly appropriate and add to the room's timelessness, especially after a few unhurried refills.
There are a few other bars and restaurants that pour a respectable variation of the Pimm's Cup. The long, saloon-style bar at Tujague's gets high marks for old-style afternoon atmosphere with its impossibly high frosted windows illuminating the towering bar mirror. The Pimm's Cup here --rocks glasses filled with Pimm's and Sprite, lemon twist garnish -- really lets you taste the grassy, herbal flavors in the liqueur against a light, citrus background. And with the smell of beef brisket drifting in from the adjacent restaurant, it's really hard to lose on a lazy weekday.
Many of the city's more established restaurants are also likely to have a Pimm's Cup in their standard bar repertoire. The cocktail scholars at Herbsaint mix an outstanding version with a French sparkling lemonade, an elegant and tasty solution to the usual two-step lemon/soda routine. The result is a near-perfect Cup that rivals the Napoleon House served in a stylish, modern bar setting.
Commander's Palace uses a stout bottled ginger beer for the primary mixer in a variation usually referred to as a "Pimm's Rangoon." With heady ginger replacing the acidic lemon, the resulting drink is more earthy than the citrus-based varieties. A bias-sliced cucumber sets off the ginger, bringing out the sweetness of both liqueur and mixer. If you're so inclined, a light squeeze of lemon adds a bright, pleasant edge to the final drink.
As local cocktail culture veers away from the classic and embraces a more shot-based aesthetic ("Chocolate Cake on the Beach," anyone?) the Pimm's Cup is likely to achieve endangered status in most bars. But during the summer home stretch, it's good to know that a few bars keep fresh cucumber on hand to keep the crazies at bay.