Back when Britain had an empire, the folks whose responsibility it was to run it weren't known for their eagerness to mix with the folks they were lording it over…the traveling Brit could always count on finding safe harbor at the Club, an island of anxious, obsessive compatriots all devoted to maintaining their peculiar, distant customs in a sea of people behaving sensibly. Only the Club members didn't quite see it that way: They were normal; everybody else was somehow deviant. Weird.
Among all these far-flung outposts, few were farther flung than Rangoon's Pegu Club…Like all of its ilk, the Pegu Club had a bar, and like all such bars, this one had its house cocktail. Unlike the Muthaiga Country Club and the Ootacamund Club, though, the Pegu Club managed to insert its -- a delightful and refreshing combination of gin (naturally), lime juice, orange Curaçao, and a couple of other thises and thats -- into the annals of mixology. As master mixologist Harry Craddock observed in 1930, the Pegu Club Cocktail "has travelled, and is asked for, around the world." David Wondrich
Many cocktails are built around a formula. Think of the Manhattan and the Martini, both drinks that in accepted modern recipes tend to combine two parts strong spirit to one part vermouth, topped up with a dash or three of bitters. Think of all your sours, your mules/bucks, your fizzes and the like, which swap out spirits, juices and sugar, maybe slightly jiggle proportions or change up the sparkling stuff that give fizzes fizz, but are essentially of the same template.
Think of the Margarita or the Sidecar, both drinks built around a portion of base spirit and a lesser amount of orange liqueur or Curaçao and fresh citrus juice, and then remember The Pegu Club, a deceptively simple little cocktail with a plausible, definitive origin, and in the same vein as the Margarita or Sidecar, but with Gin as its base. Unfortunately, no one can really agree on the proportions of ingredients, the type of gin, the brand of liqueur or Curaçao or how much (or what kind) of lime juice should be factored into the damn thing. Fortunately, experimenting with the available recipes makes for a pleasant, boozy evening, and one of the many available formulas will surely suit your tastes.
Treading into the murky depths of The Pegu Club brings to mind Kipling’s admonition, “It was a wearied journalist—he left his little bed,/And faced the Burma telegrams, all waiting to be read.” It is a drink that has inspired quite a bit of debate amongst the sorts of people who obsess over drinks. Doug Winship, who seems to be otherwise perfectly sane and decent, has devoted an entire blog to Pegus. One of the best bars on the planet has resurrected the Pegu Club as its moniker and of course features the cocktail as its house drink, even though it is 8,000 miles from Burma, and you’d be hard pressed to find a British officer on site.
A Few Sobering Notes on Burma
Burma, currently called Myanmar by its blood thirsty, ruling government, has long been a tough corner of the world. Bordered by India on the West, and China, Laos and Thailand to the East, the Brits became involved in Burmese affairs starting in 1823 and took Rangoon without a fight in 1824, but resistance continued until 1826, when the first (but certainly not last) Anglo-Burmese War ended. It was the longest and most expensive war in that part of the British Empire, and 15,000 European and Indian soldiers were killed, but no one bothered to count the number of Burmese soldiers and civilians who lost their lives. In modern equivalent currency, the Brits spent somewhere between 18.5 and 48 billion dollars on the effort, and were rewarded with several more wars and uprisings for their efforts, before Burma became a full colony of the British Empire in 1886 as a province of India.
British rule was not smooth, as guerilla uprisings continued almost continuously and were often brutally suppressed. In 1937, Burma was separated from India and given its own constitution that gave back some power to the Burmese people. Japan invaded in 1942, and the Brits drinking at the Pegu Club absconded in March of that year, but by 1945 the British had taken most of the country back from the Japanese, until they left for good in 1948, when Burma, unlike India and Pakistan, opted not to join the Commonwealth. Given the bloody relationship, it is difficult to blame them.
Modern Burma is no better, with the ruling party, closely allied with the Junta who ruled the country until 2011, known to use brutal tactics to suppress any and all dissent.
In short, it is the kind of place that can make one really need a drink.
The Pegu Club (The Place and The Drink)
The club that gave the cocktail its name opened shortly after the arrival of the British in Rangoon and served the needs of military officers and civil administrators while being strictly off limits to locals. Photos of the place show it to be a sprawling, example of British colonial architecture, with nicely shaded terraces, and plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy oneself without the pesky local population butting in.
It’s not entirely clear when the house cocktail first came to in existence, but one can safely assume that the first provisions that arrived were well stocked with both gin and orange Curaçao from the other ends of the empire, and limes, being native to the region would have been in ready supply. From whence the Angostura bitters (a product of Spanish controlled Venezuela) and orange bitters arrived, we can only guess, but no well stocked bar would’ve been without them.
Cocktail Historians and geeks have noted that the first time the drink appears in print is in Barflies and Cocktails (1927) and later in the revised edition of the same author’s ABC’s of Cocktails (1929). A slightly different recipe appears in The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), and the one most recognizable as a modern Pegu Club appears in Cocktails, by "Jimmy" late of Ciro's (roughly 1930). Of note is that the first three references are from books published in Europe by bartenders who worked in London and Paris, while the final was published in America, but ostensibly authored by a bartender from a popular London club. Clearly, sometime between the establishment of the British presence in Burma and the late 1920s, the Pegu Club Cocktail had made its way back from the remotest reaches of the Empire to Mother England, and then to the world.
A (Really) Lengthy Note on Proportions
The first two printed recipes for the Pegu Club call for “1 dash of Angostura Bitters, 1 dash of Orange Bitters, 1 teaspoonful Lime Juice (Rose's), 1/6 Curaçao (Orange), 2/3 Gin." This early mixological preference for measuring ingredients in fractions is infuriating, but, basically, this would be 2 oz. of gin, a ½ oz. of Curaçao, with the rest self-explanatory. And it is not particularly good, the mix of both liqueur and sweetened lime cordial, overwhelming the drink.
In the Savoy, Craddock specified, “1 Dash Angostura Bitters.1 Dash Orange Bitters, 1 Teaspoonful Lime Juice, 1/3 Curaçao, 2/3 Dry Gin.” In modern terms, we can think 1 ½ oz. of gin, and ¾ oz. of Curaçao, and (maybe) assume fresh lime juice. Either way, it is still too sweet.
“Jimmy,” however, calls for “4 parts Dry Gin, 1 part Curaçao, 1 part Lime Juice, 1 Dash Angostura Bitters per cocktail, 1 Dash Orange Bitters per cocktail." Now we’re getting somewhere: 2 oz. gin, ½ oz. each of lime and Curaçao, a couple of dashes of bitters and we’ve got a sense of balance.
Still, great minds disagree. David Wondrich, writing for Esquire, first championed the drink using 2 oz. of gin to ¾ oz. each of lime and liqueur and 1 dash each of Angostura and orange bitters, but has since moved into the Jimmy from Ciro’s camp. Gary Regan has called for the same measure of gin, but with 1 oz. of Triple Sec and ½ oz. of lime, with 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters and 1 dash of orange bitters (one can assume he uses his own Regan’s No. 6).
Ted Haigh uses 1 ½ oz. gin, ½ oz. Cointreau, ¾ oz. lime juice and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters, leaving out the orange bitters altogether. Robert Hess suggests 2 oz. gin, ¾ oz. Orange Curaçao, ½ oz. lime juice, 1 dash Angostura Bitters and 1 dash Regan's Orange Bitters.
Audrey Sanders, now married to Robert, and owner of New York’s Pegu Club, who has perhaps done more than anyone to popularize the Pegu Club Cocktail, suggests 2 oz. of gin, 1 oz. of Marie Brizard Orange Curaçao, ½ oz. of lime juice, and 1 dash each of Angostura and orange bitters. Doug Winship, suggests 3 oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin, 1 oz. Cointreau, 1 oz. lime juice, 2-4 dashes Angostura Bitters and 1 tsp. fresh egg white.
Oy vey. I feel like Kipling’s journalist, and I just want a cocktail.
A Brief Note on Gin, and a Slightly Longer Note on the Orange Ingredients.
As you can imagine, there is some also some disagreement on what gins and what orange liqueurs belong in a Pegu Club. Still, there is some general consensus that a nice, assertive London Dry Gin like Beefeater or Tanqueray is the way to go, though Plymouth does have its advocates. Either will do, but choose the London Dry if you have it on hand.
The orange liqueur gets more complicated. Generally, avoid anything labeled Triple Sec (though Luxardo Triplum might work just fine), and anything that seems far too inexpensive. Genuine Curaçao is made with the peels of dried Sevilleorange peels from the Island of Curaçao. Some, like Grand Mariner have a Cognac or brandy base, while others have a neutral spirit base. (For an intensive round up of the category, check out the Oh Gosh! Orange Liqueur Showdown.) Generally, the heavier cognac and brandy based liqueurs are perceived as sweeter in this cocktail, so adjust proportions accordingly. All good quality Curaçao will have a pleasant, slightly bitter note, usually perceived on the finish, that helps to balance out the sweetness of the liqueur.
A relative new comer to the market, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao is fantastic in this drink, and a bargain at about $25 a bottle, but Cointreau, Grand Mariner and Marie Brizard all pop up in recipes from trusted sources. Use what you like—everyone else is.
There are also several different kinds of orange bitters on the market, and all vary considerably in profile. The orange version from Angostura can work here if used judiciously, the same with Regan’s No. 6. The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters work nicely indeed, and Fee Brothers as always, are only a last resort.
The Moral of The Story
Chose a gin, an orange liqueur and a set of proportions that work for you. Try a few variations and see what you like. But the bitters are essential, and the combination of orange and Angostura bitters is best, though Angostura only will do in a pinch.
A Base Recipe
The Pegu Club
2 oz. Beefeater Gin
½ oz. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
½ oz. Fresh Lime Juice
1 dash Angostura Bitters
1 dash Bitter Truth Orange Bitters
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until very cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a strip of lime peel.
Read Bill's Cocktails With Mad Men series here.