It’s the strangest thing. Well, probably not THE strangest in a town loaded with strange.

But how did an internationally popular watering hole, closely tied in fact and legend to one of France’s greatest heroes, become associated with a purely English cocktail? The answer is two-fold. First, it’s a fairly recent link-up, going back only to the 1950s. Secondly, it was the brain-child of Sal Impastato, then owner of Napoleon House, who wished to provide his guests with a lighter libation that would not knock them on their collective butts. Seems the bar then was not the picture of gentility it is today. Okay, so that’s a stretch about today’s establishment. But it is a respectable and pleasurable historic stopping point, an oasis, for locals and visitors alike.

Anyway, Mr. Sal was enamored with an English cocktail that has as a key ingredient, a liqueur, Pimm’s No. 1. The number is important because the company, founded in 1823, went on during subsequent years to create Nos. 2-6. No. 1 was a mixture of gin along with a closely guarded secret recipe of liqueurs and herbs. The popular drink was traditionally served in a tankard and so the term “cup” was attached to the moniker.

Mr. Sal liked what he enjoyed in England and brought the recipe back to New Orleans, featuring the cocktail at Napoleon House. In deference to Americans’ love of sweet, he used soda, 7Up®, and lemonade instead of the classic ginger beer.  

So, the deep, dark secret of why a Creole bar, named for a legendary Frenchman, would bring to the fore an English drink. The French and the English were never known for being best of friends. To further add a typical New Orleans side-bar twist to the story, go to any other major cocktail capital in America, ask for a French 75, a Champagne-based drink, and see if they use Cognac. Just about everyone else uses gin as the added spirit. But in New Orleans we use the more-French Cognac. Why with the Pimm’s Cup do we happily combine an English Drink in French surroundings, but when it comes to a French 75 do we, almost alone in the world, insist on respecting the combination of Champagne with Cognac, two decidedly French adult beverages?

Yes, I know that many bartenders in New Orleans insist on making their French 75’s with gin because that is the original recipe, as created by an American during World War I. But some of us buck at that yoke, not wanting to intermingle two cultures who have not liked each other throughout most of their histories. And then we happily head to Napoleon House, home to a former mayor, a French Creole, and almost-residence for the French Emperor himself, to have a classic English beverage. In New Orleans, it all makes perfect sense.

Okay, so now let’s really blow the story, as we have recounted it so far, out of the water. The Napoleon House recipe is not the classic. And any Englishman worth his weight in coins of his realm, pounds, would wonder what madness is at work here.

 

The Classic Pimm’s Cup

  • 1/2-inch thick English cucumber wheel
  • 1/2-inch thick lemon wheel
  • 2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1
  • 4 ounces lemon-lime soda (lemonade) or ginger ale
  • lemon twist

 

 

The Napoleon House Pimm’s Cup

  • Fill a tall 12 oz glass with ice and add 1 1/4 oz. Pimm’s #1 and 3 oz lemonade.
  • Then top off with 7Up®.
  • Garnish with cucumber.

 

To be fair to all the players, the English version calls for “lemonade.” But English lemonade is not as sweet as the American counterpart and it is usually carbonated. That makes sense when an English favorite, ginger ale, is substituted, which it usually is on that scepter’d isle.

Also, taking this discussion on to the next, not necessarily logical, conclusion, variations on the Pimm’s Cup cocktail abound. Not far from the Napoleon House, just a block away, Kingfish makes its Pimm’s Cups stuffed with all manner of seasonal fruit and they toss in a few herbs, just for good measure. It’s not only refreshing but beautiful.

The Pimm’s Cup at Sylvain, also a block away from Napoleon House but in the other direction from Kingfish, is primarily orange-based, and the tea-colored hue of the more classic drink gives way to something that is, well, orange-colored. The darn thing even looks healthy.

Let us give praise, and raise a glass, to James Pimm; Sal Impastato; the Emperor Napoleon; a former Mayor of New Orleans, Nicolas Girod; the Spanish tax collector for Colonial Louisiana, Don Almonaster, in whose former home Sylvain is located; a most colorful Governor, the inimitable and incorrigible Huey Long, nicknamed the Kingfish; and to those countless souls who have sought relief from New Orleans heat and humidity in the refreshing glass of an English cocktail: Salud!

 

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