Mug Shots: A Cheery Way to Top Off Summer

Posted September 15, 2010 at 4:53pm

Martinis, old-fashioneds, Manhattans … the list of classic cocktails that have been rediscovered by modern drinkers is long, although the number of under-the-radar drinks worthy of revival might be dwindling.

Enter the Pimm’s Cup, a British-bred concoction that’s been cropping up on local cocktail menus. It’s a cocktail with a distinguished pedigree — and a refreshing taste that makes it deserving of a second look.

Recipes for the drink always include Pimm’s No. 1, a gin-based spirit with an aromatic and slightly mysterious bitter, herbal scent. But mixologists diverge on the ingredients after that. At New Orleans’ historic Napoleon House, where the Pimm’s Cup is the unofficial house drink, it’s mixed with lemonade and 7UP, then garnished with a cucumber slice.

In the options found on local menus, bartenders usually beef up the drink with straight gin (Pimm’s has a relatively low alcohol content) and favor spicier, sharper ginger beer as a mixer. Cucumber is often the garnish, carved into spears or fancifully curled into cocktail glasses.

The drink, which has herbal notes that temper its sweetness, is a bracing quencher during steamy months. But with warm temperatures still lingering, a Pimm’s makes for a perfect late-summer sipper.

Most bars have a dusty bottle of Pimm’s on hand that they can use to whip up an acceptable version of the drink — that is, if a cucumber slice filched from the kitchen’s salad-prep station suits you fine — but there are a few spots around town that have given the Pimm’s Cup star billing.

It’s no surprise that Againn (1099 New York Ave. NW), a British gastropub, takes its native drinks seriously. Bartender JP Caceres gives the cocktail all the attention a chef might lavish on the evening’s specials. He muddles English cucumber (the skin is less bitter than domestic varieties, he says) with fresh mint and uses a house-made ginger syrup to add an extra-spicy note.

Even the garnish on the Pimm’s Cup No. 13 ($9) is a work of art: a thin strip of cucumber is curled into a cup around a sprig of fresh mint, “so you smell it with every sip,” Caceres says.

At Zaytinya (701 Ninth St. NW), the British drink takes a detour to the Greek Isles, in keeping with the Penn Quarter hot spot’s Greco-nouvelle cuisine. Beverage manager Ryan Jones adds lacy fresh dill to the mix in the Major Patrick’s Pimm’s ($11), a drink named after a British officer who helped lead the Nazi resistance in Greece during World War II. The inclusion of dill is certainly odd-sounding, but the pungent, herbaceous flavor lends an unexpected twist.

Somehow, a retro cocktail feels more authentic when it’s served in vintage glassware, as it is at Toyland (421 H St. NE), an atomic-era lounge on the less-trafficked end of the H Street corridor. If Judy Jetson craved a Pimm’s, she’d probably belly up to the blue Formica bar here for a Long, Tall Sally ($8). The cocktail features Pimm’s, New Orleans-born Peychaud’s bitters and a zippy, gingery fizz, courtesy of Gosling’s ginger beer.

The Pimm’s Cup has long been associated with the sports of the crooked-pinkie set (along with Champagne, Pimm’s is the drink of Wimbledon). And at H Street Country Club (1335 H St. NE), where country-club life gets a hipster sendup, the Pimm’s Cup ($8) is suitably frill-free. And a garnish of fresh strawberry slices is a fancier touch than one might expect at a bar where Skee-Ball and mini golf are the big draws.