“There must be a few hundred men who are fairly behind the scenes of the Burma War—one of the least known and appreciated of any of our little affairs. The Pegu Club seemed to be full of men on their way up or down, and the conversation was but an echo of the murmur of conquest far away to the north.”
If one found oneself in the British colony of Rangoon during the late 1800s and one was possessed of sufficiently high rank in the British government, one might find oneself floating up the river to disembark at the Pegu Club, a gentlemen’s club patronized by British army officers and civilian bureaucrats. It was located on Kemmendine Road near the towering golden Shwedagon Pagoda and considered every bit the peer of two more of the most famous British officers’ clubs: the Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur and the Tanglin Club in Singapore. It was the sort of place that epitomized exotic fancies about adventure, colonial decadence, and of course, spectacular cocktail culture. The fate of the club is shrouded somewhat in mystery. By most accounts, it was destroyed by Japanese bombs during World War II, but journalist Paul Theroux, in a 1971 article for The Atlantic simply called “Burma,” reportedly visited the club, which was then being used as a mess hall for officers of the Burmese Army. Whatever the case, all that remains now is a bus stop named after it on Pyay Road.
Decades later though, one might find oneself transported back to that fabled club, or at least to New York City. Tucked into a substantial second floor space and hidden behind a nondescript single door that is easily missed as one walks down Houston Street and a series of blocks not known for having much worth noticing, the New York cocktail bar Pegu Club takes its name from the old club in remote Burma. New York’s Pegu Club seeks somewhat to evoke the feel of the old club, and one certainly feels like one is stepping into a bar that would be home to femme fatales, pirates, freelance adventurers, ruined officers, and one of those Frenchmen in a linen suit, smoking a cigarette held between pinky and thumb (except that smoking in bars in illegal in New York) as he waxes poetic about how we are all damned, gloriously damned. His name is probably Bonne Chance Louie.
But their goal is less to recreate the feel of a Victorian outpost club and more to recreate the cocktail culture of that club. I’m a moderate cocktail drinker at best, preferring most of the time a neat whiskey or boastful beer, but I’m certainly not opposed to going overboard on the occasional mixed drink. So I saddled up to the bar with a motley crew of other would-be pirates and devils and asked bartender Del — himself looking like he’d be as much at home working the Coney Island Sideshow as he would be dapperly dressed and behind a bar — to make me a drink.
In the spirit of doing something new, I skipped the whiskey cocktails and went for rum, a local variation on the rum and ginger beer based Dark ‘n’ Stormy. It seemed the right drink to order, and I was not let down. Fantastic drink, garnished with lime and candied ginger, and as we were there early and the bar was sparsely populated, we got to chat up Del quite a bit, which makes for a particularly amusing experience. Second drink, after a buffer of water, was a simple whiskey smash, but simple cocktails are usually the best, and this one was absolutely divine, lovelies. The whiskey smash is sometimes called a lazy mint julep, but it’s as much a whiskey sour as it is a julep, as the modern version of the drink incorporates lemon and bitters as well as whiskey, simple syrup, and mint. I could have downed two or three more with relish — so in anticipation of that being the case, it was decided that a little bit of food was in order. I went with coconut shrimp, which was perfectly acceptable without being as wonderful as the cocktails. Then the night was wrapped with, naturally, the cocktail invented at the old Club and still made with expert skill at New York’s Pegu Club.
The Pegu Club Cocktail
- 1 Dash Angostura Bitters.
- 1 Dash Orange Bitters. (Angostura Orange Bitters)
- 1 Teaspoonful Lime Juice. (1 teaspoon Fresh Lime Juice)
- 1/3 Curacao. (3/4 oz Bols Dry Orange Curacao)
- 2/3 Dry Gin. (1 1/2 oz Plymouth Gin)
- Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.