Rangoon… I’ve never been there; all I know of the city is its evocative, roundly poetic name, its portrayal in the movies, and a little bit of WW2 history.

It slows you down just to say the name, “Rangoon”–something about the combination of sounds makes the surrounding sentence come to a halt for a couple beats while all the long sounds catch up; the name evokes the tropics, the monsoon, and the exotic faraway.

In the movies it was a distant corner of the British Empire, with mysterious beauties, dark alleys, exiled drunks and losers, and wealthy expatriates in white suits and excellent hats who looked like C. Aubrey Smith. It was the starting point on the road to Mandalay, and until the Japanese took exception, the supply port for the Burma Road.

I learned all this from the movies. And despite knowing that the docks and dark alleys were all on Hollywood back lots and the monsoons were hooked up to fire hydrants, the images stick, and the word “Rangoon” evokes the tropics nonetheless.

So imagine my delight when I learned of something that had not been in the movies, a part of the truth at least as good as the fiction: that in the Rangoon of the silent era there really was an outpost of empire, the Pegu Club, where all those white-suited C. Aubrey Smiths really did spend their leisure time, where the exotic was set aside for the familiar richness of woody luxury, and where, according to cocktail historians, the Pegu Club Cocktail was first poured.

The Pegu Club Cocktail, photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Pegu Club Cocktail

I’ll guarantee you that the Pegu Club Cocktail did not survive because of white suits and atmospherics. It survived, outliving its namesake, because it is certainly one of the great cocktail inventions, a delightful and summery gin sour.

As with all great sours, the proper proportions of the ingredients are a continuing controversy, unlikely ever to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The early examples, exemplified by the Savoy Cocktail Book’s recipe, were very sweet, with no orange bitters and a vanishingly small portion of lime. There seems to have been a slow shift over the decades toward more sour in this drink. My preference is for equal parts of Grand Marnier and lime juice in a 3:1:1 proportion, a recipe modeled closely on that suggested by David Wondrich.

The Pegu Club is traditionally made with dry gin, but I prefer the smoother, rounder combination with Old Tom:

Pegu Club Cocktail

  • 2 oz. Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
  • ¾ oz. Grand Marnier
  • ¾ oz. lime juice
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash orange bitters

Shake with ice, present in a chilled cocktail glass. Express and garnish with lime.

I have pushed the measures of Grand Marnier and lime to a 2:1:1 proportion; the gin got a little bit lost, of course, but that may be not be a bad thing for all drinkers, and it still made a smooth and acceptable cocktail.

I recommend the Old Tom gin if you can get it; London Dry seems a bit thin and lacking in character by comparison in this cocktail.

One more thing: Doug at Pegu Blog includes 1 tsp. of egg white in the mix. He claims that it rounds off the rough edges of the drink, and I have to agree. It takes the sharpness off the lime, and gives a slight sense of body to the drink. My only problem with the egg is that it can be a time consuming extra step, and can be a bit messy at times. And of course, you have to trust your eggs. On the other hand, how long could it take to crack an egg and portion out a spoonful of white?

Maybe twenty repetitions of “Rangoon, Rangoon, Rangoon…”