Tuesday 17 October 2023

Vintage Pimm's No.5 and No.6—unopened bottles

My two 1960s bottles. Note that I'd already opened them by the time of the photograph

I’ve known for a long while that the fruit-infused summer classic, “Pimm’s No.1 Cup”, was actually just one of, at one time, seven different cups, each with a different spirit base. The gin-based No.1 was the original, created by James Pimm in 1840 as a tonic, sold by the tankard in his oyster bar. It contained a secret blend of fruit, liqueurs and spices. Scotch-based No.2 Cup and brandy-based No.3 were introduced in 1851 (though I’m not clear at what point these were bottled commercially). The 1930s saw the addition of dark-rum-based No.4 and rye-based No.5, while the 1960s added vodka-based No.6 and tequila-based No.7. All but No.1 were discontinued in the 1970s, although No.6 was brought back by popular demand between 2004 and 2021.*

So I was intrigued when a friend produced two battered bottles of No.5 and No.6, part of a dusty lot he’d bought at auction. (He does this quite a bit, and every time we meet he has some new curio to sample.) The labels are pretty ragged, but on one you can still see that the ABV is given as 55° proof (28.9 %), which would date them most likely to the 1960s. (They were originally 60° proof, lowered to 55° in the 1960s, and today Pimm’s is 25% ABV.)

Pimm's modern plumage
Modern bottles still say “The original No.1 Cup”, though I note that there is no mention of gin (it’s simply described as “Pimm’s spirit drink”), and to taste it you aren’t immediately put in mind of gin. No ingredients are given, but then it is a secret recipe. My vintage bottles are actually blazoned “The original rye sling” and “The original vodka sling”.

I crack open the No.5 and the first thing that hits you from the nose is that it is very clearly made from rye, plus subtle fruit elements—not the sort bubblegum synthetic fruit flavour you find in some modern products, but hints of actual strawberry, orange and peach. On the palate it is rye-forward, plus a sweetness and those gentle fruit elements, then a striking chocolate finish. This is quite a departure from modern Pimm’s where the spirit base is not something you’re really aware of.

I open a bottle of the modern stuff that I have in a cupboard (so not the freshest, in fairness). It actually has the same sort of dry, subtle fruitiness on the nose as the No.5, but without the whiskey. On the palate it has a sweetish attack, a thick mouthfeel, but a slightly hollow body, and a faint finish of caramel. It’s a flavour sui generis, something we all recognise, though I would say it is greatly less redolent of fruit than the No.5. It’s true it’s an oldish bottle, that was first opened some time ago—but not nearly as old as my bottle of No.5! The No.5 is about the same sweetness, with a bitter element from the wood in the rye, but a much more vibrant fruit character. It’s actually quite exciting to taste this and get a glimpse of what Pimm’s is capable of being.

Perhaps I should have approached the vodka-based No.6 first, given that vodka is going to be a less powerfully flavoured sip than rye. But I’m surprised again that even here you can clearly taste that the base is vodka, quite a punchy vodka at that. And again the fruit elements are more freshly fruity than with my modern bottle. Whereas the modern No.1 is alcoholic, but doesn’t taste of a base spirit, just the other elements, the vintage No.5 and No.6 are very much a recognisable spirit, blended with other fruity elements. It actually makes me want to drink them neat (though this is clearly not how they were ever meant to be served) which is not something I would say about the modern No.1. Given that you’d expect the fruit elements to fade with time, I am amazed at how lively these 60-year-old drinks still are. (We’ve all found a bottle of some fruit-based liqueur at the back of a cupboard and discovered that it now has a dusty, funky off-ness that destines it for the sink.)

The vintage blends are clearly sweetened, though they seem less so than the modern blend. However, both have a bitter note (perhaps from the base spirit, although I’ve read that James Pimm’s original blend included quinine), so perhaps it is this that makes them seem less sweet.

The classic way to drink Pimm’s is with lemonade, so I pick up a bottle. Perhaps unwisely, I choose a trendy cloudy style, rather than the clear, sweet, fizzy “R. White’s” beverage of my youth. I say “unwisely” because this was probably not what was meant by lemonade in the 1960s, and probably has more actual lemon juice, but what the hell. Using three parts lemonade to one part Pimm’s, I compare my three samples. 

With the modern No.1, I wouldn’t want much more Pimm’s in the blend: its flavour comes through strongly enough, and I wouldn’t want any more sweetness.  Mixed with the lemonade, all three samples have a hint of caramel on the nose, but with the No.1 there is something else too, something synthetic, like vinyl matting. The vintage No.6 is subtle in this mix, and works better if you shift the balance to 2:1, though even then the Pimm’s flavour is more restrained than with the No.1. I prefer it, however, as it is a more refined flavour, though this is possibly because it is less sweet overall. 

I came to the No.5 expecting to like it, because I was so taken by it neat, but my immediate impression is that it quarrels with the lemonade. (I appreciate that there is no logic here, as a Whiskey Sour is a classic.) You get used to it, however, and returning to it later I warm to it. There is a buttery note that I come to like.

Later I acquire some more traditional clear lemonade (Fever Tree Light) and try the comparison again. With the modern No.1 a 2:1 ratio feels about right; it’s a familiar combo, though when you think about it, it is, again, not terribly reminiscent of fruit. With the vintage No.6 2:1 actually seems a bit strong, so I switch back to 3:1, which is in fairness the ratio suggested on the label. Wow! Even at 3:1 you can clearly taste the vodka base but the drink is also far more of a fruit cup than with the modern No.1, which tastes a bit flat and sour by comparison. This tastes more vivid, with layers of high and low notes emerging in what is a very balanced drink. With the No.5 2:1 is, unsurprisingly, too strong, so I switch to 3:1. After the vodka drink, you have to reset your tastebuds for the strong wood notes. This works a lot better than with the cloudy lemonade, though personally I think the vodka base is more successful.

A No.5 Cup with ginger ale, featuring the label’s prescribed garnish of
“a slice of lemon and a sliver of cucumber rind”
The other mixer I wanted to try was ginger ale, which apparently is also traditional with Pimm’s, and I particularly wanted to see how it went with the rye. Using Fever Tree Light again, at 2:1 the modern No.1 at first seems to get a bit lost, though you can certainly tell it is there, both on the nose and the tongue. Once you get used to it it’s not bad. With the vintage No.6 2:1 feels a bit too strong, though at 3:1 it is also starting to get a bit lost, with the ginger dominating. I try nudging the proportions back in favour of the Pimm’s but then it seems too strong again. Overall this combination is not nearly as happy as with the lemonade; in fact I’d say the modern No.1 goes better with ginger ale, its low-mid character harmonising more with the ginger.

Mixing the vintage No.5 with ginger ale at 2:1 is again a bit strong, but at 3:1 it really comes into its own. Whiskey and ginger ale is a classic combination, and it is this marriage that underpins the drink, though the fruit element definitely contributes too. The perfect summer drink for whiskey-lovers, and even though it’s October as I’m drinking it, I am hugely taken by this concoction.

Another popular serve is the Pimm’s Royale, where Champagne is used instead of lemonade, here in a 2:1 ratio. This is obviously a drier drink, though this doesn’t seem to be an issue with the No.1, where the combination has a sort of toasty quality. 

With the No.6 I’m rather taken, though Mrs H feels it lacks something—that something perhaps being sugar. At 2:1 I feel that this blend is fruitier than when made with modern No.1, but then I did feel that the vintage samples had more vibrant fruit qualities to it. I quickly decide that this is an excellent drink.

With the No.5, Mrs H. pulls a face, though I rather like it. It reminds me of a Seelbach Cocktail (see footnote 2 here), combining the woodiness of whiskey, sweet fruit and dry Champagne. I have to admit that for modern palates, the Royale made with the vintage samples would probably benefit from some sweet element to balance them.

Of course all of these observations will probably be of little use to you, unless you too come across some vintage Pimm’s bottles. But if you do, be sure to snap them up. I’m told that from time to time a complete set of all seven cups comes up for sale at auction, but they tend to go for silly money.**

* I’ve read that Pimm’s bar had different sized flagons and the “No.1 cup” was a reference to the size of vessel. Which makes sense: why would he call the actual drink “No.1” years before Nos 2 and 3 were introduced?

** At the time of writing there is a single bottle of 1960s No.3 cup for sale on the Whiskey Exchange website for £199.

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