Pith Helmet

pith helmet

When I was in London, it just happened to be Wimbledon weekend and even though there wasn’t a tennis ball in sight where we were, all we wanted were pitchers of Pimm’s Cup. To our dismay, a number of places didn’t have them, and at the one restaurant that did, we were unimpressed. (So much so that the waiter took it off the bill.) Since it’s the perfect summer refresher – and it’s nice to serve drinks by the pitcher, so you can spend more time with your guests – I decided to take matters into my own hands and make a batch as soon as I got home.

cucumbersPimm's No 1

I hit a couple of liquor stores in my neighborhood and, of course, no one had Pimm’s No. 1 Cup. One vendor confessed that he did know what it was, but that he didn’t carry it. So I made the inevitable trip over to La Maison du Whisky, which may be my new favorite place in Paris (they have everything!) and picked up a bottle of Pimm’s – as well as a few other things to keep me well-stocked for summer.

lemon-basil syrup

Knowing what sticklers people are for accuracy. I knew that I needed to strictly follow an official recipe. So I opened up Bitters, A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, which a friend had sent me, which has recipes for making your own bitters as well as a quirky collection of cocktails, each one sounding more enticing than the next.

After scanning the index for “Pimm’s”, I landed on a page with a recipe for a Pith Helmet, a bracing cocktail which augmented a shot of Pimm’s with a shot of gin, and added another dimension with an herbal syrup made with fresh basil and lemon zest.

basil-lemon syrup

The friend who had given me the book (who photographed and designed it – and got to sample almost everything in the book), had been nice enough to include a sampler pack of bitters, which contained everything I needed to shake one up. One gulp and I realized it was everything I wanted in a cocktail – refreshing, with a hint of citrus, icy-cold, and most of all, it went down easy.

Pith Helmet Cocktail


Pith Helmet
Print Recipe
One cocktail
Adapted from Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons The author recommends Fever-Tree Bitter Lemon or high-quality tonic water. I used regular tonic water and the drinks were fine, although if you can find either of those, I recommend using them. (They do sell it at La Maison du Whisky, I think. But I took the bus round-trip across town and it was hot and sweaty, and wasn’t especially anxious to go back.) If you can get one of those French carbonated lemonades that isn’t too sweet, it might work nicely and I’ll probably do that next time. If using a regular cucumber, the kind with a lot of seeds, you might want to scrape the seeds out, which can be a bit bitter. Speaking of bitter, if you don’t have the recommended bitters on hand, I wouldn’t fret – I would simply use another bitter in their place. Brad Parsons says to pour the drink into a highball glass, which I don’t have. So I used squat glasses and the drinks were a bit stronger than they would be in a taller glass – but no one complained!
6 black peppercorns
3 cucumber slices
1/2 ounce lemon-basil syrup (see below)
1 ounce gin
1 ounce Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes celery bitters
Tonic water or Fever-Tree Bitter Lemon (see headnote)
1. Crack the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle, or in a ziptop bag, using a hammer. Put them in a cocktail shaker with the cucumber slices and lemon-basil syrup and muddle until the cucumber slices are completely broken down into a pulp.
2. Fill the shaker halfway up with ice, then add the gin, Pimm’s, lemon juice, and bitters. Shake the mixture until very cold, then pour through a cocktail strainer into a tall glass filled with ice. Top with tonic water or Bitter Lemon, add a cucumber slice and basil leaf as a garnish, and grind a bit of black pepper over the top.

To make the lemon-basil syrup, wash and dry 6 large basil leaves. Put them in a small saucepan with 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar and 1/2 cup (125 ml) water, and add the zest of one lemon (unsprayed). Heat the mixture, pressing the basil with the back of a spoon as you heat the syrup, stirring a bit, to encourage the leaves to release their flavor and the sugar to dissolve. As soon as the syrup just begins to boil, remove from heat and let cool completely. Once cool, strain the syrup into a jar and refrigerate until ready to use. The lemon-basil syrup will keep for up to one month. Makes about 3/4 cup (180 ml.)

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  • Anna
    July 15, 2013 12:00pm

    Pimm’s is one of the greatest pleasures of the English summer. I love it and was thrilled to see they issued a limited edition this summer: Blackberry and Elderflower.

    • July 15, 2013 1:37pm
      David Lebovitz

      I saw that advertised, but didn’t come across any in England (although I should have looked!) I love the sound of it and maybe it’ll make a re-appearance next year, and include a stop in Paris : )

  • Jyoti
    July 15, 2013 12:42pm

    This is just too good to resist! Absolutely love your cocktail stories David. This one has all my favourite things in it and the black pepper is an added bonus for a pepper freak like I..And that Lemon-Basil syrup is a good thing to have on hand too !
    No idea what a celery bitter is..and considering its vacation time here, perhaps like you I would have to start peering through the dark windows, jumping on fire hydrants and drain-pipes of liquor stores in Basel to get that one ( still chortle about your Peychauds project adventures ) So heres to more drinking – cold, refreshing, summer cocktails…hic hic..

    • July 15, 2013 1:38pm
      David Lebovitz

      I was thinking the basil-lemon syrup would be great mixed with strawberries as a simple compote. If I have any left from making Pith Helmet’s, I might give that a try ~

  • Jyoti
    July 15, 2013 2:04pm

    Good Luck trying that David :) And then that strawberry compote can be served with your Chocolate Ganache Custard Tart from Ready for Dessert ? I’m eyeing that recipe and the compote might make it perfect for summer ?

  • July 15, 2013 3:45pm

    This sounds amazing. I love Pimms so i cannot wait to try this!

  • Joan B
    July 15, 2013 4:52pm

    Although I don’t really do much alcohol, you had me sold on this cocktail till I got to the celery bitters. Celery is one of the few flavors I dislike, so how about 4 dashes of Angostura bitters instead?

    • July 15, 2013 5:00pm
      David Lebovitz

      Sure, you could use any kind of bitters that you think might be a nice compliment. I didn’t realize they sold bitters “starter sets”, like the one my friend sent me, and those are fun to have on hand so you can fiddle around with different flavors, to find whatever suits you.

  • July 15, 2013 4:56pm

    I have never made a cocktail but this looks great. I am actually thinking about posting something similar to this on my blog so thanks very much for the inspiration. :)

  • Kathy
    July 15, 2013 5:16pm

    Your good friend, the much-admired Deb from SmittenKitchen.com has a similar recipe she calls a Porch Swing. Using Pimm’s and Hendricks, and lemonade, cukes, and a splash of soda, my friends and I make this our top refresher every summer. Looking forward to trying this one, too!

  • July 15, 2013 5:17pm

    I’d never heard of Pimms until I moved to the UK. Everyone I knew always raved and raved about how good it was. After living in the UK for 5 years I’ve finally just had my first glass over the weekend. Don’t know why I waited so long! It’s fabulous. I went out and bought a bottle, so am looking forward to trying out this cocktail recipe!

  • Simone B
    July 15, 2013 5:28pm

    As an English transplant to the USA, I can’t believe that I find it easier to find bottles of Pimms here than you do in Paris. I am in South Jersey and there are 3 stores within 10 minutes drive who carry it. It is my way to have a taste of summer from back home.

  • July 15, 2013 5:38pm

    Pimms is lovely, but it’s very easy to drink too much of, inadvertently!

  • July 15, 2013 5:41pm

    Hahah Pimms is an English wonder. We take a bottle out to our friends in the Allier every year when we go out, beccause trust me, its a thousand times harder to find in rural france!! The simplest is awlays the best with pimms- lemonade, cucumber slices, strawberry slices, lemons and mint. Perfection! God only knows how many Pimms pitchers have sold over the last couple of weekends!!

  • July 15, 2013 5:53pm

    I never heard of this until a family friend married a Brit and moved to the UK. It’s so nice to see it here in type with great pictures and others’ comments. Looks so refreshing.

  • LisaG
    July 15, 2013 6:20pm

    I recently found out the differences between all of the Pimm’s variations: circa 1935: No. 1 is gin based; No. 2 is scotch; No. 3 is brandy, No. 4 is rum; circa 1964: No. 5 is rye sling; No. 6 is vodka sling. (Thanks, Waitrose!)

    I never knew there were so many variations, although I am not sure if that many are still being produced

  • July 15, 2013 6:28pm
    David Lebovitz

    LisaG: When I was at La Maison du Whisky, they had Nº 1 and a “winter” Pimm’s which I’m not sure what that is either. But thank for the info on the other ones!

    Simone B: I think like most things, it’s supply and demand. Few people in Paris drink tall, icy drinks (except the watery mojitos as the cafés…) and think if you asked around, few – if any – would know what Pimm’s is. I went to 4 shops in my neighborhood – two wine/liquor stores and two supermarkets, and couldn’t find any. I’m jealous you have it so close to you!

    laura: It is pretty great stuff because it’s not super-strong. I love this particular cocktail – give it a try next time you have a bottle handy.

  • July 15, 2013 6:40pm

    As someone who lived in 1960’s “colonial” Hong Kong, I feel the need to make a Pith Helmet, if only to get into that “Raj” feeling! I am also an avid Pimms lover, so it make’s sense! Karen

  • July 15, 2013 6:40pm

    This reminds me of when we threw a party for the wedding of Kate and William (the Royals) for our friends in Provence. We brought two bottles of Pims back from the UK (you can barely get a bottle of Spanish sherry where we live and we’re only a few hours from the border) and made the cocktail in jugs as an apero. At first our French friends were suspicious, a drink with slices of cucumber, they said. But soon they were chugging it down, I’ve never known 2 bottles to disappear so quickly! Now we constantly get asked when are we going to make Pims again…..there’s nothing quite like it for a British summer’s day.

  • July 15, 2013 6:43pm

    And very un-British of me to get the spelling of Pimms wrong!!! Oh well, I must have spent too long in France!!

  • Tomi Kent-Smith
    July 15, 2013 7:40pm

    This isn’t about Pimm’s but Bonal aperitif – would love to know if you have any recipes for it’s use. However the lemon basil syrup makes me think of many uses. Merci.

  • Mike
    July 15, 2013 7:41pm

    Brilliant departure from the standard “Sangriaesque” Pims and lemonade that is conventionally served up during the (short) British summer. As an expat in Western Australia, where we enjoy extended sunshine hours, I will make sure to try it!

  • JB
    July 15, 2013 8:27pm

    This looks similar to a Porch Swing, as described here:

    The herbs in the lemon syrup sound great.

  • Laetitia Watts
    July 15, 2013 8:35pm

    Lovely recipe. It is unseasonably warm (!) in the UK at the moment and I have a bottle of Pimms in the larder along side some bitters and tonic so i may well have to make this, this weekend instead of the usual Pimms/ lemonade/ fruit combination. Can’t wait!

    BTW you must try the Pimms winter cup, served with warm apple juice it is a tasty winter warmer a bit like spiced cider. Much nicer than mulled wine and less tipsy-making than Sloe Gin!

  • Patsy Lavinia
    July 15, 2013 9:01pm

    Where do I find celery bitters? Or, the bitters starter kit? This cocktail sounds lovely.

  • Joanna
    July 15, 2013 9:17pm

    Here is a link to Victaoria Moore’s DIY Pimms. It’s a great recipe. Leave out the Cointreau and go half Italian Vermouth and half gin for a Gin & It. Lots of ice of course…

  • July 15, 2013 9:44pm

    Thanks for featuring the Pith Helmet, David! So glad Ed shared BITTERS with you and that you’re enjoying the book. I liked using celery bitters with this drink to add to the vegetal flavor profile, but you’re right, just using Angostura is perfectly fine for readers who can’t find celery bitters. With celery bitters, I’m a big fan of The Bitter Truth (also travels by Berg and Hauck’s) out of Munich and Scrappy’s from Seattle, WA. Cheers!

  • July 15, 2013 10:11pm

    Love Pimms! I think its definitely under used in the US but I saw it a lot in Canada….I guess thats the influence of still being part of the Commonwealth?

  • Mark Pearson
    July 15, 2013 10:27pm

    Only the greatest food blog on the World Wide Web!!!
    We so enjoy the quality effort you apply with each and every post.
    Susan and I spent 6 mos on Rue Daphine and so wish we had known of you then!
    We are planning a return ” tour of duty” and would love to have you to assist us.

    As we had guests over for Wimbledon finals and poured AWFUL Pimms Cups:(
    We sure could have used this special recipe……
    An idea, in the week leading up to special televised events, World Cup Soccer,
    The great horse races and golf etc…. Would love to have a like recipe for each!!!!!
    Kentucky Derby: Mint Julip
    Tour de France, World Cup in Brazil,,,,etc…..
    Just a thought!

    Thank you for adding to our lives in such a special way

    All the best

    Mark and Susan

  • Collette
    July 16, 2013 1:29am

    I too just had a Pimm’s experience. (I’m feeling quite close to you right now.) About a week and a half ago I had dinner at The Girl and The Goat (did you eat here when you were in Chicago?) and had a (for me) record number (3, nothing crazy) of drinks. Two of them were Three for the Road–gin, Pimms #1, cucumber and lime. Last Tuesday the 5 year old and I marched (literally) to the liquor store and bought Pimms. I’m looking forward to replicating that drink.

    Oh, and then I saw a recipe for Pimm’s popsicles. Yes please!

  • Gavrielle
    July 16, 2013 5:33am

    Since Christmas is in summer in NZ, a Pimms is my family’s traditional pre-lunch drink on Christmas Day – mmm! I wasn’t sure it could be improved upon, but the Pith Helmet sounds very, very tempting.

  • July 16, 2013 5:44am

    I adore Pimm’s – can’t wait to try this recipe!

  • Robyn
    July 16, 2013 6:07am

    When I was a child in summer my supposedly tea totalling aunt and mother used to down the Pimms at the local beer garden. It was THE drink for ladies in Australia in the fifties and would arrive in a long glass filled with ice and slices of lemon I think oranges and sliced long ways cucumber with perhaps a sprig of mint. At that time there would not have been a barman in Australia who couldn’t turn out a highly decorated Pimms . Rebelled against Pimms as I grew up (was never allowed to taste one) and had forgotten about it till now will try it next summer. Was in France last month and could not find soda water anywhere same in Italy very strange tonic was everywhere any idea why soda water is impossible to find?.

  • French Basketeer
    July 16, 2013 6:10am

    Ah, I enjoyed many a Pimms in London and Oxford….that is, before I discovered the Continent. I looked recently and had a hard time finding it, but now I’m def going to have to find it so that I can try a Pith Helmet. Thanks for the post~

  • Carren
    July 16, 2013 7:46am

    I’ve already said how much I TOTALLY enjoy reading your blog — but nevertheless, I’ll say it again (because I think this each time I read a post). Reading your blog (and books) brings me so much joy! I also want to say how much I enjoy following your links to all the interesting info and interesting people. I have learned so much from your blog and have been introduced to so many interesting people, places, books, and experiences that I just would never know about without a connection to your writing. So, thank you again. And for others reading this comment, I would encourage you to scroll back on this post and click on David’s link to my “friend.” Oh my goodness, Ed Anderson’s photography is unbelievable! Gorgeous! What extraordinary talent!


  • July 16, 2013 7:50am

    This drink sounds amazing! Wonder if I can find Pimm’s on Maui?

  • July 16, 2013 8:55am

    Pimms is usually available in Monoprix. I buy it there, and it is always in stock, even here in rural France in a tiny store.

    You can also buy Kahlua and other non French drinks in Monoprix

  • Bebe
    July 16, 2013 5:19pm

    Pimm’s should be available in any American liquor store (even on Maui!) – probably in the “specialty liquor” section

    A delicious drink.

  • Denise
    July 16, 2013 6:19pm

    I’ve found bottles of Pimm’s at Casino supermarkets. I was surprised, but happy!

  • Parisbreakfast
    July 16, 2013 7:12pm

    London was so baking hot I could have used a pith helmet literally!
    Fun post

  • Carren
    July 16, 2013 7:47pm

    When exploring the Internet on Pimm’s, I came across reference to two places in Balitmore that appear to be serving a similar cocktail (minus the bitters):


  • July 16, 2013 8:45pm

    Being one of antipodean upbringing (Australian) I am well-practised in the drinking of Pimm’s. Now we live in the US and it is summer I have had a hankering for it and now I must try your recipe!

    I can’t believe it was so hard to get in bars and restaurants in the UK – during Wimbledon, no less. Shame on the Brits! Haha :)

  • Denise
    July 17, 2013 1:51pm

    I love love love making new cocktails and that one sounds like heaven. Thanks David! … now to find the space for *another* bottle of liquor.

  • July 18, 2013 8:43am

    Well, I’ve been searching for a better view of the different drinks I’ve been sharing with my mates for days, but here I’ve found it. Your view of the preparation was more practical than what I’ve read before, so it was worthy enough for our future discussions with my colleagues at our local bar. Keep it up!

  • K
    July 18, 2013 12:49pm

    This may be too late, as you are already stocked up, but I noticed that a few different Monop’ (though not Monoprix) stores have a special display on cocktails this week with Pimm’s No. 1, Aperol, and a few other treats and little signs with cocktail recipes.

  • Lisa
    August 2, 2013 5:38pm

    Coincidentally, the very day you first posted this entry I just happened to eat at a restaurant with a Pimm’s Cup prominently offered on the cocktail menu! I couldn’t comment at the time because there was no wi-fi access at the restaurant, called “Los Angeles,” which advertised “creative American cuisine.” Quite possibly this was due to the fact that it was located in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia! Their version of this (very non-American) libation was made with Pimm’s, gin, lemongrass, cucumber, strawberries, grapefruit, mint leaves and ginger ale. I didn’t actually try it because it didn’t seem to go with the mutton broth with ground mutton dumplings and sliced mutton that I was having for lunch,which frankly I can’t recall ever having seen on the menu of any American restaurants either. So although I can’t attest to the quality of their Pimm’s Cup, if there’s one thing Mongolians know how to cook, it’s mutton. My soup was delicious!