On this episode of the “Cocktail College” podcast, host Tim McKirdy is joined by Aaron Gregory Smith, executive director of the USBG, to discuss the Pimm’s Cup. A quintessential British summer staple, the Pimm’s Cup has, over the years, developed notable ties with tennis tournaments, played a part in the history of the U.S. Bartenders Guild (USBG), and even gained some fans in New Orleans. Tune in for more.
Aaron Gregory Smith’s Pimm’s Cup Recipe
- 3-5 slices of cucumber
- 5-6 mint sprigs
- ½ ounce ginger syrup (2:1 Demerara sugar to water, simmered for around 15 minutes with peeled, minced fresh ginger)
- ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
- 1 ounce Pimm’s No. 1
- 1 ounce gin
- 1 dash of aromatic bitters
- Soda water, to top
- Garnish: fresh cucumber and mint
- Muddle cucumber with mint in a cocktail shaker.
- Add ginger syrup, lemon juice, Pimm’s, and gin.
- Shake until chilled and strain into a chilled Collins or 12-ounce pint-shaped “pub” glass filled with ice.
- Top with soda water and garnish with fresh cucumber and a mint sprig.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: This is the “Cocktail College” podcast and the time has come to prepare some Pimm’s Cups. New York City and San Francisco coming together for today’s episode of “Cocktail College” as we’re joined by Aaron Gregory Smith. Aaron, welcome.
Aaron Gregory Smith: Hi, thanks for having me, Tim.
T: Thank you so much for joining us. Excited. Also, some folks hearing that New York, San Francisco, perhaps seeing the episode titled The Pimm’s Cup, might be thinking we’re crossing the Atlantic for today’s episode, but we’re not. Or at least we’re not, as in both of ourselves. As a starter, why are we covering the Pimm’s Cup today? What does this cocktail mean to yourself?
The History of the Pimm’s Cup
A: Well, I think there’s a lot of people or a lot of people in the U.S. whose experience with the Pimm’s cup comes from a little place in New Orleans called The Napoleon House, right?
T: That is true.
A: That is well known for this drink, and I think that that’s probably my own story of first coming across the drink was at the Napoleon House in a little plastic cup with some Pimm’s and maybe some ginger ale and mint leaf on top and that was about it.
T: Fantastic. It really is. I think it’s notable that on that front there, New Orleans, what an iconic city for cocktails. The fact that this British transplant, as we’ll get into, somehow finds a name and a following in that city with so much competition. I don’t know. It’s wonderful, but for sure we’re going to get into that one. We’re talking about this already, though. Everyone knows what we’re on about. Pimm’s Cup or is it Pimm’s, whatever, but for those who aren’t familiar, maybe some folks have tried them, but they don’t know what’s in it. Can you just give us some background there on the ingredients of this drink? Basically, what kind of cocktail is it? What style of cocktail is it?
A: In the U.S., we call it the Pimm’s Cup, but Pimm’s in and of itself fits the categorical definition of a cup, and a cup is a cocktail that sort of came together as over time the batched cocktails, the punches that were in vogue in the 1800s, started to move into single serves. You might think of a cup as instead of a batched drink, a single service kind of related to a sangria. There’s always a wine component, there’s always a sweet/citrus component. Then as it’s served, it has evolved to accept a lot of different garnishes, herb, and fruit garnishes. Right now, if you order a Pimm’s Cup somewhere, you’re likely to receive Pimm’s, some sort of soda on top, whether that be lemonade, as it’s called in the U.K., or 7UP here, ginger ale, ginger beer is often used. We’ll receive that Pimm’s, perhaps a fortifying spirit of some sort, and then herbs, berries, or other types of vegetables like cucumber is very popular here in the U.S. as well.
T: Yes. I think this is a great example of one of those ones that really does show that divide that perhaps exists between drinking culture, again, across the pond there and here in the U.S. I don’t think they’re two wildly different versions of the drinks, but for sure there’s maybe some differences there too. It’s funny prior to coming to this, and I should put my hand up here and say I’ve enjoyed many Pimm’s in my life, but it’s not one that I drink all that regularly. I’ve always thought about this as like a punch before I came to this, but again, that probably stems from just drinking it in British pubs. As far as they go when it comes to cocktails it’s Pimm’s and G&Ts, that’s about it, so maybe no surprise there.
A: Yes, it’s pretty related. It’s related. It’s an early, early version of cocktails. Cups are in general. Then Pimm’s being a very specific type of cup that was popularized in a restaurant named after the owner whose last name was Pimm.
T: That always helps. When we look into the history, and we’re about to dive into the history here too, but having a figure whose name is attached to the drink definitely does help those folks, like Dave Wondrich when they want to go down their fantastical deep dives on looking up and pulling at the threads of history. I’m sure that helps there, but why don’t you tell us that story now, what can you tell us about the origins of this drink and bring us back up to, I guess, 2023?
A: Yes. Well, I’m not a historian. You mentioned Dave Wondrich. I defer to anything you’ve read that Dave Wondrich has ever said about this drink should be prioritized way above anything else I say. The bottled Pimm’s is an early version of a ready-to-drink cocktail that is all the rage in 2023. It really dates all the way back to this formulation too where people were mixing wine, were fortifying it, or stabilizing it with sweeteners to be able to serve it over longer periods. In the Pimm’s drink, Pimm’s Cup as it’s referred to, one of the other things that people are looking for there is something that’s relatively low alcohol, and this is the Napoleon House story, is that they wanted a drink that people could drink many of without becoming too intoxicated. Without any fortifying spirits, the Pimm’s Cup cocktail is relatively low alcohol. You can drink many of them over a course of an afternoon and maintain your composure. Which is good for a lot of different environments, especially hot New Orleans where you want to be able to sip on things while you’re enjoying your muffuletta sandwich.
T: Or perhaps a tennis tournament in London. I will get into that.
A: Or a tennis tournament in Wimbledon. Yes, correct. That’s another place where this drink has been very, very popularized, in a warm grass-based tennis tournament, right?
T: Absolutely. You’re guaranteed a couple of weeks, well, many weeks of rain in the U.K., but none more so than during Wimbledon.
A: It’s going to rain on that day.
A: Yes. As we’re talking about the history of Pimm’s, I’d be remiss and I’ll talk about its really important role in the founding of the organization. I represent the United States Bartenders’ Guild, I’m the executive director of the organization, and I came across this story as we’re looking into our history and validating our founding story. It turns out that the United States Bartenders’ Guild actually started as the West Coast chapter of the UKBG. As we all know, Prohibition decimated bar culture or bartending in the United States. Not unlike what we just went through with the Covid-19 pandemic. Afterwards, people were returning to the United States and bartending culture started to come back once Prohibition was repealed. As well as post World War II, there were just all these groups of people internationally gathering together and sharing ideas. Bartenders were one of those groups. A former U.K. bartender had moved to Southern California, his name was Angus Angerosa, Italian originally, and then a bartender in the U.K., and moved to Southern California. He had been a member of the UKBG and knew that when he moved to California, he wanted to create that same community, and so was reaching out to his old colleagues, and there was a trustee on the UKBG’s Board of Directors by the name of Jack Finney. Jack Finney happened to be the owner of the Pimm’s restaurant in the 1940s. When Pimm’s decided to launch in the U.S., they sent Jack Finney as an ambassador to launch this in the California market. Angus and Jack had a number of meetings and they talked on Jack’s first trip of introducing Pimm’s to the market, and then Jack came back another time, and shortly thereafter, we start seeing the first recognition of the West Coast chapter of the UKBG that was brought was supported by the launch of Pimm’s in Southern California.
T: What a fantastic story right there. I’m sure there’s more than a handful of our British listeners right now thinking, “Yes, you have us to thank for the U.S. bartending skills.”
A: We absolutely do.
T: Pimm’s in particular, that tie-in, I love it. Very unexpected.
A: It is. Our organization did start in Southern California and mostly contained there for a very long time, but over the last 75 years now has expanded quite drastically. Another little piece of USBG history. U.S. Bartenders’ Guild and UKBG, we’re all part of the International Bartenders Association, and every year, the International Bartender Association has a cocktail competition. They have been doing this for at least 75 years but even before the U.S. joined. For a lot of the members of the early years of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, it was such an honor to go and represent the United States at this global bartending cocktail competition. One of our former organizational presidents, he’s our historian and just loves digging into this stuff. He actually came across a recipe that won our national competition in 1951. It was by a bartender named Walter Simpson, and it has Pimm’s in it. The cocktail is called the Luxury Cocktail. We recreated a bunch of these drinks for a recent seminar and the Luxury cocktail was a big crowd-pleaser recently, so it has stood the test of time from 1951 to today.
T: Wow. That’s phenomenal. Yes, I love those ties right there. I’d also like for us to tie up a couple of threads to bringing all of that information together. You mentioned prior to Pimm’s coming over to the U.S., you have a man named James Pimm, and he runs a restaurant, as you mentioned over there in the U.K. That’s an oyster house, I believe. Correct?
A: Yes. Oyster house and that may be as much as I know about that part of the story.
T: Yes. My understanding is that he has an oyster house. I believe it’s close to London’s old or it was close to the Billingsgate fish market, which is still around. I don’t know whether it’s the same building, but the fish market still exists. I know that for sure from my old cheffing days in London. Then what? He starts this, like you said, basically this OGRTD brand that is based on gin, but not exclusively gin. Is that correct?
A: Yes. He had a number of different versions of the drink. There’s a gin-based one, which was the number one, and then he had a Scotch-based one, and brandy variants, as well as vodka. You actually can see this, you’ll see the Pimm’s Cup when you see it on menus. Occasionally, people are naming it the Pimm’s Cup number 276 and it has mezcal in it or something.
T: That’s crazy.
A: Pimm’s corresponds extremely well with just about any other base spirit. On that note, the bar that I operated and was the managing director for many years prior to coming to the USBG is called 15 Romolo. We actually offered it on the menu with pick your base spirit. It was a Pimm’s Cup recipe all the way through and you choose what spirit you want to put in if you want to use tequila or rum. The most popular was of course gin with tequila as a close second in that bar.
A: It worked great with whiskey anything.
T: Yes. No, I think that’s a great point. I think from here on in a good way for us to differentiate the two so that people can stay on track because I’m confusing myself here. I guess if we talk about the Pimm’s Cup as the cocktail in Pimm’s, as the brand/liqueur that might help us just differentiate between the two.
A: The confusion is in the very name because Pimm’s is technically the cup and the cocktail is a Pimm’s Cup cocktail, but we refer to it as a Pimm’s Cup. Which is confusing, but now we’re clear on that.
T: It’s very confusing. So Pimm’s No. 1, like you said, is gin. I think I have in the notes here. No. 2, Scotch. No. 3, Brandy, and some other ones there, rye, rum, vodka, so basically, plug and play. Do we know if any of these other based spirit versions are still produced by the brand, which I believe is currently owned by Diageo, but is certainly a major conglomerate? Do we know if any of those other ones are produced, or it’s all in on number one?
A: I think it’s all in on number one to the best of my knowledge. I think they did a short run of the Vodka No. 6 for a period of time, but it wasn’t permanent. What do they call those? Limited-time offerings.
T: Yes, one of those like seasonal offerings, which is quite funny because this is a very seasonal cocktail, at least in my mind.
A: Absolutely, and interestingly enough, Guinness was the owner of Pimm’s, and then Guinness merged with another company to form Diageo, and Pimm’s came along for the ride. That all happened in 1997.
T: Guinness, this is a complete sidebar, but now confirmed as the number one selling beer, I’m guessing, volume or value or both in the U.K. That shocks me. It’s a stark contrast over here in the U.S. where I think four of the top five best-selling beers are light beers, such as Bud Light, Mich Ultra, and others are available. I guess they drink a lot of Guinness over there in the U.K. Why? I know they do. I’ve contributed to that historically, but not for a while.
A: Not for a bit. Interesting talking just about the ownership of these companies and how it changes over time, the history of it goes back so far, and the culture around the drink who actually produces it does change hands quite a bit.
T: It’s always great though to see these brands maintain their lives, especially one such as this so historic and so pivotal to one particular drink. I was doing a little YouTube deep dive before this, or not deep dive, a light dive on YouTube, and it seems like they haven’t really, because I recall commercials with Pimm’s growing up, and I was like. “I wonder if they’re actively pushing this in any way,” and seems like they haven’t had any new commercials for like 15 years, at least that I can see on YouTube anyway, that might be completely false, but interesting that I guess it just endures on its own.
A: On its own, yes, it’s got its own, it doesn’t require a whole lot to keep it moving, and it’s available across the U.S., which is not the case for a lot of spirits in this category or products in this category. Sometimes it’s harder to find, but Pimm’s is available pretty much everywhere.
T: Yes, fantastic, and also final point on this historical thing there, farmer and oyster bar or an oyster restaurant, oyster house, I believe is the wording they use in the “Oxford Companion.” A kind of fruity, citrusy, highball, liqueur cup, whatever, we’ll get into that, that is not what I’m thinking of, that I’m going to go for, right? I find that fascinating.
A: I would pretty much go for a Martini. That’s-
T: A hundred percent.
A: -the clear winner, but it has a lot to do with the herbal aspect of it and the borage for which the cucumber has become a substitute in the U.S., but those crisp herbs do complement I think in a really nice way to that oyster experience, to that seafood bar experience.
T: Very nice, and that’s a great segue right there because as you mentioned up top there at the top of the show, this is a fruity cocktail that has a sparkling component goes pretty heavy when it comes to the garnish and fresh ingredients like a sangria like you said. Those are pivotable to the identity of this drink, but profile-wise, what are you expecting? What are you looking for from a perfectly executed version of this cocktail?
The Ingredients Used in Aaron Gregory Smith’s Pimm’s Cup
A: I would say now, the modern version of it, it’s going to be refreshing and crisp and just sort of a powerhouse of flavors that are in that lighter range, and those flavors are really set off by having this core base of a richer wine, some tannin in that wine-based cup that allow that cucumber, that higher citrus note, to really seem off of the base.
T: Fantastic and I think yes, from there as well, we can go directly into the ingredients, and again, this can become confusing. I think because you mentioned when you run bar programs with this cocktail on, it’s almost a kind of Mr. Potato Head where you can pick your base spirit. Is that the case if you’re using Pimm’s No. 1 the ingredient, or is that you’re doing something separate?
A: We did, actually, yes, we would fortify the Pimm’s Cup at 15 Romolo with another base spirit. So we would do a split base, one ounce of Pimm’s, one ounce of a higher alcohol by volume spirit. In that drink, it was a split base, Pimm’s and other base you’d like, we added some fresh lemon juice that’s not maybe in the classic Pimm’s that you might be thinking of, if you order at a pub in the U.K., but in the U.S., typically there is a citrus component to brighten it up and balance. Then you definitely have a sparkling component, so a soda, you could use a ginger ale, ginger beer. You could even do a bartender’s ginger ale, which is for those of us who worked in nightclubs is a 7UP with a splash of Coke and maybe a dash of bitters. You can pull off that too, and then garnish is such a big component, but on the liquid side, you’ve got to have some sort of carbonation. I think there’s even a version of the Pimm’s that’s a Royale where they use sparkling wine instead of a sparkling soda.
T: Now you’re starting to talk my language a hundred percent.
A: Yes. Then we can go into a completely different conversation about garnish.
T: Basically, base alcohol from there, you like to split it, you think that’s a good way to, I guess on one hand, maintained some kind of alcoholic presence there because whatever Pimm’s comes in, ABV-wise, we’re also diluting it with other ingredients, so it’s good to have another strong base ingredient in there, base spirit.
A: Yes, that was sort of our take on it. I think if it’s on a brunch menu, maybe you don’t want to fortify it. Or at a tennis tournament, maybe you don’t need to fortify it. We also found fortifying with fino sherry was really, really nice to keep the alcohol by volume a little bit low, but not have the cocktail dominated by the Pimm’s flavor and just really supported by it.
T: Yes, that’s really wonderful, and yes, I’m just doing a quick search here and it seems it’s around the 25 percent ABV mark. Again, this is some kind of mix of, we could also, I think you’ve mentioned earlier, kind of think of it like a vermouth in a way, but it’s fortified with gin, and it has these botanicals and other ingredients, and maybe a slightly sweet profile. That’s the Pimm’s No. 1 base.
A: Exactly, and vermouth is more specific, it’s fortified with great base spirit, right, and sometimes gets up into that 25 range. This is like a vermouth, but with a different fortifying spirit that adds its own flavors to it, and its origin is a little bit different than vermouth.
T: I’m almost tempted to call this Britain’s answer to Campari in a way. I mean, flavor profile, very different, but ideologically, kind of similar in some ways. I don’t know.
A: Yes, somewhere in there. It has a place for sure. I think where the Pimm’s Cup can take many wild variations is on that garnish aspect. In the U.K., from what I understand, mint and borage are the two primary herbs that you would expect to find in a drink, and maybe some berries, maybe some strawberry here and there, but in the U.S., borage is not a very common herb, so we’ve substituted that with something with a similar flavor profile, which is the cucumber. In the U.S., you’re likely to find this drink with cucumber, maybe some strawberry, definitely mint, and probably some ginger component somewhere, whether that’s in the ginger ale, ginger beer, or perhaps even in a ginger syrup.
T: Yes. I’ll probably counter by saying as well that I think that that borage, I’ve come across it again while working in kitchens and definitely worked with it through the lens of certain seafood dishes, so immediately I’m going back to that, that oyster house, but when I think about those Pimm’s Cups that are served in pubs, cucumber is the first one that actually comes to mind along with strawberries. Then with strawberries, you got the whole Wimbledon connection right there too.
A: Yes, absolutely.
T: Your preference, therefore on the — because lemonade, like you said, it’s basically lemon and lime flavored soda that’s sweet. Equivalent to Sprite or something.
A: Yes, Sprite, 7UP, that’s what I understand to be the most equivalent. There’s another mixer less well-known called bitter lemon soda that can also be used in this drink that can be really, really nice as that sparkling component.
T: On your own personal preference from the additional spirit that you’re adding, would you be a gin guy as well for that?
A: Probably gin. I really like it with Scotch as well. I like to drink Scotch, but I think for the Pimm’s, I really like that gin because what I’m looking for is something that is accentuating the herbal components of the cocktail and keeps it pretty bright. Gin is such a great base for all of these herbal citrus notes.
T: I’m starting to also see some ties between this and the Bloody Mary in a way. Again, nothing from a flavor perspective, but just ties to. I can imagine people enjoying this drink at brunch, but also it just being so versatile when it comes to the different styles of spirit because how does an aged spirit like Scotch or rye or brandy alter this cocktail versus using an unaged spirit? How does that change the profile?
A: I would say it just makes it richer. What you’re going to start to pull out of the Pimm’s probably is a little bit more of the wine tannin and a little bit more of the — there is an orange look here in Pimm’s. They’re very secretive about the actual ingredients, but we do know that there is an orange liqueur, so you’re going to get a little bit more of those lower end. The Scotch or those aged spirits are going to tie into that richer orange flavor as opposed to some of the zest you get on orange that’s very bright and acidic and a little bit floral. You’re going to dig in a little bit more deeply into those richer tones of more of maybe a cooked orange or like a flambeed orange.
T: You mentioned citrus. You classically like to go lemon there. Is there a reason that you prefer lemon over say lime? Or I’m guessing other citrus is probably not acidic enough. Between those two, why are you inching towards lemon?
A: I think it really depends on the other components that you choose. I would lean toward lemon if I’m trying to match the cucumber flavor. If I were using a different type of muddled fruit, they called for lime, if you were using some other tropical fruit and tequila for instance, maybe you’d want lime. Or if you were going to use a rum base and perhaps a stone fruit, you might want to go lime just to brighten it up in a different way.
T: What’s the wildest thing you’ve tried in this or had someone order this and be like, “Actually, that works?”
A: I would say probably we did it with Genever at one point. I think we did that for a special event when Bols was launching over here, and that worked out really nicely, actually. We chose some different fruits so we use gooseberries for that. It worked instead of cucumber. It was a really nice Northern European-
T: Talk about splitting the difference between gin and whiskey right there, just straight down the middle.
A: Exactly. Maybe not too crazy.
T: What about aquavit? I’m always looking for a home for my aquavit.
A: Absolutely works with aquavit. We did that too and it works great. Strawberry does great with aquavit as well. You might shift the herb from mint to something like tarragon or something that’s a little bit brighter with that aquavit because it’s such a strong flavor. It might overpower mint being a little bit too subtle, but I can imagine thyme or oregano would really blast off of that really nicely.
T: Leading up to this, talking through all of this, as someone who likes to pack things neatly into boxes, I’m like, “There’s too many variables here. There’s so much going on,” but I’ve landed upon somewhere that I think, “How do you feel about this?” I pull out, I believe, the book over here in the U.S. is called “The Flavor Bible.” We call it “The Flavor Thesaurus” in the U.K., or maybe it’s — Are you familiar with the one I’m all about?
A: I’m familiar, yes.
T: Maybe this is the cocktail where you pull that out and you’re like, “Where are my flavor friends here?” With my caraway and my aquavit, okay, where’s the fresh herb I’m going with that? Where’s the fresh fruit? Really just hundreds of different spins on this one seemingly simple drink.
A: Absolutely. You could play with it in so many different directions. That’s really the fun of the cocktail. It’s interesting you mentioned “The Flavor Bible,” I was talking about that cocktail, the Luxury Cocktail from the 1951 competition. That one uses banana liqueur in the cocktail with it and lime juice along with a little bit more fortification from gin, a bit of vermouth too, and then shaken and up. Pimm’s is incredibly versatile. In and of itself, maybe it is not something you’re going to drink on the rocks, but it’s so versatile and it adds just such an interesting savory herbal component to whatever you’re adding with it. It’s just a great base. They came up with something really special.
T: Yes. Such a versatile ingredient and drink, as you mentioned there. We’re going to have to do this later on in the show too when we get to our final questions, but I’m going to have to now also force your hands slightly when I now ask you for a recipe and preparation for this drink which would be your preferred one. I also do like to ask our guests at this point that it also maintains the soul of the drink, the classic version of the drink, if that’s okay.
How to Make Aaron Gregory Smith’s Pimm’s Cup
A: Yes, absolutely. The number one selling cocktail at the restaurant that I worked at 15 Romolo, I’ll give that build because it’s the one I could probably make in my sleep.
A: I’ve made hundreds of them a night for 10 years. The way that we do it, we make homemade ginger syrup at that bar. We use ginger syrup, but we’ve tested this with a lot of different things. Ginger beer or a really good ginger ale works just as well. What we do is muddle cucumbers into the bottom of the glass, a little bit of mint, don’t muddle it too hard but get some aromatics coming out of it. Then add the ginger syrup and some fresh lemon juice about half an ounce of fresh lemon juice. Then combine that with an ounce of Pimm’s, and an ounce of gin is the more traditional, but again, we can substitute any spirit that you like, whatever your preference is. Then shake that part up and then strain it into a fresh glass over ice, and top it with soda water. I guess we would do a dash of bitters in there as well at a certain point. Then garnish it with a fresh cucumber, unmuddled, and a mint sprig. That was our classic preparation.
T: So no strawberries, sorry.
A: We did not use strawberries, cucumbers only.
T: Fantastic. Can I ask you for some quantities there, roughly when it comes to the cucumber and the mint that we’re muddling?
A: Yes. I would say between three to five thin slices of cucumber. Then as far as leaves go, mint leaves, I would maybe like five to eight, depending on their size and how fresh they are, and just a real light tap on the mint.
T: Fantastic. Muddling, dying art, by the way, just as a sidebar, not that many muddled cocktails I see these days. Did Mojito kill it for people? The Caipirinha is a great drink.
A: It’s interesting. I got my craft bartending start in San Francisco in 2004, 2005. It was nothing but muddled drinks. Everything was muddled. Perhaps that carried its way into this being the number one drink. I know people have passed on it because it is a little bit time-consuming, but it adds quite a bit to cocktails. It also is just a really nice show, and we know that as ready-to-drinks are proliferating in the marketplace, one of the things you want to go to a bar for is to see a little bit of a show. I think muddled cocktails give that opportunity and they don’t take that much time once you get into your routine.
T: It’s so funny. I’m not a professional in any stretch of the word when it comes to preparing drinks. I’m just an enthusiast, but I did have this experience last year where I was helping out some friends. Some friends were just workshopping drinks with an ingredient that they were working on. It was a liqueur actually, and we’re like, “Okay, how can we reimagine classic cocktails with this ingredient?” We went through all the templates from Martini to other stuff, and the one unanimous favorite at the end of the day was using this liqueur but preparing it and preparing the cocktail as if it were a Caipirinha. People are like, “This is absolutely amazing.” I’m like, “Yes, what an overlooked drink that one is.”
A: The bar that I had a Mojito that was incredibly popular, a Caipirinha that was very popular. Muddling was a big part of my early bartending career so it’s not something that I shied away from by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, the Caipirinha is such an incredibly simple but expressive drink because you get so much richness and depth of flavor out of this ingredient that we usually — lime, we think of it so much as just a brightener. We use it in the Margarita or anything like that to balance the sweet, and in the Caipirinha, it is its own ingredient. It really brings out the unique characteristics of the cachaça that you’re using. I’m fortunate enough to have traveled to Brazil a number of times. I’m married to a Brazilian-
T: Oh, yes?
A: -and so even just the regional variation in the cachaça that’s available to you down there, they express themselves so differently in that cocktail, in the Caipirinha.
T: Such a great drink. Such a wonderfully complex drink. More than you would imagine, right?
T: Drink more of those. Drink more Pimm’s Cups too. I tell you, also, you talking about the muddling there made me realize why probably the version that I’m accustomed to, and a lot of people will be as well, the one that looks like, “Wait, did someone dump their fruit salad from the breakfast buffet in their booze?” It’s probably because the bar had no interest in muddling whatsoever. They’re like, “We’ll just put all the fruit in here anyway.” Maybe that’s what people came to expect as well.
A: Yes. A little bit like you mentioned the Bloody Mary, the garnish of the Bloody Mary is almost the most similar thing between versions. Similar to the Pimm’s Cup, you recognize the Pimm’s Cup by the garnish as opposed to maybe how it tastes. Same with the Bloody Mary as an example.
T: One final question for you on your build, actually two. Number one, though, you mentioned a quantity of ginger syrup. Can you mention that again, but also, is this a cooked ginger syrup? Can you give us a quick idea of how you would prepare that?
A: We would peel the ginger, buzz it down the food processor to get it pretty small, and then cook it into a syrup. It was cooked ginger syrup, then we just drained out the ginger pulp, and it would have a really nice, rich, silky ginger. We did two to one sugar to water ratio, so it’s a rich simple.
T: A rich simple. Just maybe simmering or even lower for 15 minutes?
A: Yes, very low simmer until the sugar is incorporated and then a little bit beyond. Don’t want to get it to a boil. Just a very light simmer to let that go. We also used Demerara sugar for all of our drinks. It was a dark bar, so we didn’t need that crystal clear simple syrup to show up the color of the cocktails. We liked the Demerara just for that additional weight from the molasses. That was our ginger syrup. As I mentioned, if you get a spicy ginger ale, it recreates that homemade ginger syrup seltzer combination pretty well so that it wouldn’t be noticeable. If I were doing this at home, I would definitely go out and buy some Fever-Tree ginger ale.
T: It’s a really good one, that one, or the old Jamaica brand. I forget the exact name. I always forget it. Fiery.
A: Vernors is another one that I enjoy working with because it’s got that spice to it, or the Bundaberg is always good.
T: Oh, Bundaberg. If you want to head out to Australia there, right? I believe.
T: How much of that syrup, sorry, makes it into your build? You may have mentioned that. I apologize.
A: Typically because it’s a rich simple, we would use like three-quarters of an ounce of lemon to a half-ounce of the rich simple. If you’re using a classic simple one to one, you would do equal parts.
T: Amazing. Then the other question I had 10 questions ago when I said I just had one, was preferred glassware for you. Do you want to go something like a highball here, or is that a little bit to you?
A: I think you could use a Collins glass. You could use a highball. What we used is — we referred to it as our pub glass. It was a 12-ounce glass sort of shaped like an imperial pint but only 12 ounces, a smaller version. That’s a glass that’s got relatively straight sides and then a flare at the top.
T: Nice. Similar to a pilsner glass or something. I might think about something different.
A: The pilsner glass comes out further and doesn’t return in. This one just has straight sides. It flares out a little bit and then closes back up. It gives you a little bit more space for those larger garnishes to sit just below the surface and not crowd the top of the glass. If you want it to sit out to the sides, you still could.
T: Fantastic. Any final thoughts now on the Pimm’s Cup?
A: Right now a Pimm’s Cup sounds really, really good because It’s quite warm in my apartment. I think this drink has risen and fallen in popularity over time. It serves an incredible purpose in that it is great in the afternoon. It’s great at the beginning of a meal. It’s great later in the evening when you want something to sip on that’s refreshing and just to get you through to that next one. I think it’s a really incredibly versatile drink, as we’ve talked about, and maybe underappreciated at times.
T: Buy yourself a copy of “The Flavor Bible.” Buy yourself a bottle of Pimm’s and just go wild. Hit up the fresh section of the grocery store.
A: Yes, you absolutely can.
Getting to Know Aaron Gregory Smith
T: Very, very nice. All then, Aaron, we’re going to do, we’re going to head into the second section of the show here where we get to know yourself a little bit more as a drinker bar professional as we ask you our five weekly questions.
A: All right.
T: Let’s kick it off with question number one. What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar? Now that one that can be yours at home there, or that can be historically speaking. Feel free to approach this one in whichever way you want to.
A: Yes. I would say that probably what I invest the most time and energy into is probably Scotch. I like blended, I like single malts, I like special expressions. I would say that that takes up the majority of my back bar.
T: It’s a very worthy candidate right there.
A: It tastes like it’s a cocktail in a glass in and of itself. It’s got so much depth of flavor, put an ice cube on that and you’re drinking three cocktails in one.
T: Oh, I love it. I don’t think we’ve ever covered this on this show, but a phenomenon, I’m keen to hear you’re keen to get your take on this. I feel like we might have discussed it in Irish whiskey, actually, but I feel like with Irish whiskey and with Scotch, there gets to this point in maturation where the fruit character of the distillate, it gets more dried fruits and then you get more nuts, but then in some really special bottlings, you get older than that and suddenly it comes back to fresh tropical fruit. That is just something, that’s the kind of scotch or Irish whiskey that I want to drink all day, every day.
A: Oh, absolutely.
T: I love that tropical character. Is that a phenomenon that you’ve experienced and can maybe explain?
A: I’m definitely not enough of an expert in the process of whiskey maturation to know what’s causing that. It might have something to do with just eventually those tannins from the barrel reducing their dominance as they age. The true expression that the fruit characteristic that you’re talking about, it’s coming from the malted barley. That barley has a lot of very fruit-forward flavors. Those tannins come in and block that a little bit at a certain level of maturation. Then once those have moved past, you get that truer expression of that grain fruit almost as I always think of barley as being way more fruity than a normal grain.
T: 100 percent, yes. No, fantastic category of spirits right there. Question number two for you. Which ingredient or tool do you believe is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
A: Oh, that is a tough one. Because undervalued is such a judgment. I would say, which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued? Probably a good knife.
T: A good knife.
A: Yes. I’m going to go with a good knife. I don’t think that enough bartenders carry a great knife to help them over the course of their shift.
T: I hear you on that one. There’s one I believe they call it a tomato knife. It is the size of a paring knife, but it’s serrated, and that’s one of my favorites.
A: Yes, absolutely. I often find myself looking for a good knife if I’m at an offsite or an event, and then I have to make a knife that I don’t want to use at work. That’s never fun.
T: Also just, you know, a blunt knife will do so much more damage.
A: Oh, totally. My second pick was Band-Aids.
T: Good one.
A: For that exact same reason.
T: You don’t have a good knife, you need the Band-Aids.
A: You need the Band-Aids, exactly.
T: Very nice. All right, question number three. What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
A: I could take this a couple of different directions, and I would say that the piece of advice that sticks with me the most, was an owner that I was working with named Loretta Keller. When I get into my head when I’m thinking about something, I get hyper focused on it. In those moments, I will have a tendency to maybe put blinders on to what’s going on around me and be really dedicated. She said, “Remember that when you’re focused on something, you’re still affecting the people around you and just be mindful of that.” I noticed that when people are working, you get into that go mode, you’re in the weeds and you’re just like cranking out drinks, it’s important to remember that the bartender or the bar back, the people on either side of you, and the customers across the bar from you, they’re being impacted by what is going on in your head, even if you’re not aware of it. That’s something I like to think about quite a bit is that piece of advice to be, even when you’re focused, even when you’re hyper focused and in the weeds, that you have an impact on the people around you.
T: Yes. I think it’s really good advice and also does take me back to my kitchen days as well, where it’s like you can work really fast while looking like you’re actually going slow or vice versa. You can look like you’re going really fast, but actually, you’re being so inefficient, and again, the negative impact of that is just compounding as the service goes on.
A: Exactly. As a member of a team, it’s important to remember that impact and that each of you has a responsibility to keep the mood positive and heading in the right direction. It just makes the service so much better when everybody is thoughtful in that way.
T: I think that’s a real great piece of advice right there. Penultimate question right now. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
A: It would be easiest to explain this. It is a theoretical bar. It very well could be the bar that I own when I do my barista retirement, in the later stage of my life. I would love to have my final visit to a bar via a bar on a beach with a wood-fired oven that serves nothing but Negronis.
T: Okay. Interesting.
A: Wood-fired oven for food, everything out of the wood-fired oven and Negronis, and beachside, that’s where I need to go.
T: Beyond the beach, I’m seeing a heavy Italian influence here, wood-fired oven.
A: It can also work in Brazil. They sell a lot of pizza in Brazil.
T: Oh, well then here we go, do it. Oh, I’d love that one.
A: Maybe it’ll be Pimm’s, who knows?
T: Yes. Just throwing cachaca and the Negroni there.
A: Exactly, Cachaça Negroni is all the way around.
T: I bet that’s phenomenal. All right, let’s do it. You may have given us the answer here, we’ll soon find out. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
A: Okay, well, I’m going to take the departure from the Negroni here. The Negroni was to pair with that wood-fired oven. The last cocktail I would drink, I would probably do a Rusty Nail with a really exceptional Scotch. Something that has lots of heather and herbs on it to mix with the Drambuie really nicely. I could sip on a rusty nail and extend that out for a pretty good period of time. It’s just such an enjoyable drink. That’s the one I go with.
T: Definitely underappreciated right there. Good to bring your other love back into it. If it wasn’t Negroni, at least the Scotch is getting representation.
A: Yes. At least the Scotch made it back in.
T: Well, Aaron, much like you I’m in a fairly stuffy studio here and the thought of a refreshing Pimm’s Cup right now is almost becoming overbearing. I want to say thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a wonderful ride.
A: It’s been a pleasure. being here. I am a fan of the podcast and I’m glad to be able to join you.
T: Thank you, and hey, congratulations by the way, 75 years this year for the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, and I believe perhaps 10 for yourself and your current position, so congratulations all around.
A: Thank you. Yes, it’s actually going to happen, we are going to have a 75th-anniversary conference and it’s going to be right at the anniversary of my 10-year anniversary in this role as the executive director. Thank you.
T: Fantastic stuff. Thank you guys, you do incredible work. On behalf of the bartenders that I know who listen to this show and just the drinks community in general, thank you guys, and thanks again for coming on today.
A: You got it. We’ll be back.
T: Absolutely, like Arnold Schwarzenegger like Terminator.
Okay, that was a lot of info, but here’s the good news. Every single episode of VinePair’s Cocktail College is also published on VinePair.com as a transcript. So you can check it out there all over again.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.