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Phil McCausland

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How The Pegu Club Connects Contemporary Cocktail Culture With Southeast Asia's Past

Why The Pegu Club could be Southeast Asia's most storied cocktail.

The door to the gatehouse was locked, the gate closed. Sneaking through a sheet metal side door only led to an impenetrable line of unspooled, rusty razor wire. Requesting a guard’s permission to enter only earned a shrug and directions to another locked door. Before attempting an illegal scramble over an undefended portion of the fence, I decided to try official channels to gain entrance into the original Pegu Club in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, a process that would require a couple days worth of inquiries.

This may seem slightly extreme. Typically it’s not that hard to crash an elite club—find the right entourage, story, or call ahead and you’ll make your way in. But The Pegu Club isn’t quite the establishment it once was. Or perhaps it’s an even more intense version.

Under colonial British rule, before Myanmar gained independence in 1948, membership to Yangon’s Pegu Club was officially open to "all gentlemen interested in general society," per establishment rules. But if you read between the lines, a retired Myanmar colonel told me, the rule really meant "no dogs and no Orientals."

Opened in 1871, The Pegu Club stood as a classic example of a British officer’s club: a place to loosen up and get tight on cocktails that espoused the homeland to a crew of powerful and homesick Englishmen. Today, corroded barbed wire atop a 7-foot-tall cement fence keeps folks from visiting the former colonial jewel that a young newspaperman named Rudyard Kipling recalled as "full of men on their way up or down."

Today, the buildinglike its architecturally British imperial ilk littered throughout Myanmar’s largest citycontinues to fall into horrid disrepair. Its collapsing foundation, peeling, disintegrating teak walls, rotting floors, dilapidated and staccato-bump-riddled terrace, broken windows, trash and leaf strewn lawn—once pristine—now only host packs of feral dogs. Quite a change for a building that once harbored white diplomats who made decisions behind closed doors for the country they named Burma. The compound, largely abandoned and in one of the most commercially appealing section of Yangon, crumbles silently next door to the National Museum of Myanmar with no clear plans for its future.

Yet The Pegu Club does not suffer from irrelevance. Today, Pegu Club is best known as the moniker of cocktail expert Audrey Sauders’ lauded Manhattan bar, which she named after the eponymous drink when the lounge debuted in 2005. The drink itself is a classic cocktail whose original recipe called for Angostura and orange bitters, lime juice, dry gin, and orange Curaçao—the final concoction carrying a gold color tinged by green with a tart flavor similar to a traditional gimlet.

Outside The Pegu Club. Photo by Phil McCausland.

In The Savoy Cocktail Book, first published in 1930 and still printed today, Henry Craddock, one of the world’s foremost mixologists of the 1920s and 30s, called the drink "One of the favourite cocktails of The Pegu Club, Burma, and one that has travelled, and is asked for, around the world."

Sauders’ recipe calls for a slight deviation. "I utilized the same ingredients as the Savoy recipe," Saunders said, "but I tweaked the measurements by increasing the lime and pulling back on the Curaçao. This provided for a more of a refreshing flavor profile."

It’s a cocktail that, though refreshing, also carries a complexity that makes it hard to describe and difficult to label.

Opened in 1871, The Pegu Club stood as a classic example of a British officer’s club: a place to loosen up and get tight on cocktails that espoused the homeland to a crew of powerful and homesick Englishmen.

"While its ABV is not as low as a classic aperitif, I do consider it a great aperitif cocktail," Saunders explained. "It’s tart, brisk, wet and dry, all at the same time, and does a wonderful job of stimulating the palate."

Opening a contemporary Pegu Club has served Saunders well. The bar’s popularity has skyrocketed in the past eight years and it's considered one of the premiere bars in the city, if not the country. Also, most recently, it earned a finalist spot as one of the Best American High Volume Cocktail Bar in Tales of the Cocktail’s 2015 Spirited Awards.

Imbibers credit Saunders with The Pegu Club cocktail's resurgence. Meanwhile, Saunders cites her own obsession with the beverage as partly a result of the bar world's knack for overlooking gin drinks. One part bartender, one part scholar, Saunders dedicated much of her working life to the study of gin—a spirit she considers largely misunderstood. While many bars might carry more than 20 kinds of vodka, most don’t offer more than three gin options. She flipped that trend at her own Pegu Club, pouring 23 types of gin and three vodkas.

Today’s Pegu Club cocktail and the accompanying gin culture is Saunders’ baby. "In all frankness, it resurfaced because I rolled up my sleeves and championed it," Saunders said. "A lot of folks never had [a Pegu Club cocktail] prior to that, and it gave them an opportunity to try it."

The original Pegu Club’s relevance and position of authority fell into the annals of insignificance when the British lost Rangoon to Japan in World War II. From 1942 to 1945, Japanese soldiers used the building as a brothel. As the club’s "activities" called for greater attention from those who patronized it, the once frequent talks of diplomacy or war tactics likely moved at a trickle within its walls. When the British regained ownership of the city after the war, they tried to return the club to its former glory. But 1948 saw independence for Burma, and with it came trouble for its debauched colonial jewel.

Myanmar, like many similarly annexed countries, does not look kindly on its colonial past. The military government that officially ruled the nation from 1962 to 2011, and still controls 25 percent of the seats in parliament, often places blame on its former British overlords for the country's crippling economic issues.

In Yangon, the buildings from the period sit in disrepair or function as flophouses for the very poor. Local histories hail past kings, queens, and princes or those who brought about independence. When visiting, it is difficult not to come across a statue of Aung San, the author of Myanmar’s independence and father of opposition leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, in full military garb. Since Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, she has supplanted or equaled her father in popularity and now busts of both can be bought at tourist markets. But that’s part of Myanmar’s complex relationship with its colonial past. Residents don't think back fondly on colonial days, yet such remains are what attract tourists, thus inspiring businesses to preserve what was more than a bad dream.

This is a role The Strand Hotel serves with relish, as it’s one of two bars in Yangon that still serves The Pegu Club cocktail. Which makes sense, as the art of the drink is steeped in the country’s British colonial history. This is Rangoon’s cocktail, not Yangon’s, as the city is named today. Burmese exclusion led to The Pegu Club cocktail’s death in Myanmar. Now only pockets of Western nostalgia serve the drink—places like The Strand Hotel.

Opened in 1901 by the Armenian Sarkies Brothers and facing the Yangon River, The Strand is one of the most famous hotels in the region and was considered the best the British Empire had to offer in Southeast Asia. As with The Pegu Club, The Strand only enjoyed stays from its white suzerain during the country’s colonial era. Local Burmese weren’t welcome until the end of World War II. After tumbling through various hands, it fell into a state of complete shabbiness under the control of Myanmar’s powerful junta. In 1993 it underwent a transformation and emerged in full colonial glory.

The bar within Yangon's The Strand Hotel. Photo courtesy of The Stand Hotel.

... the beverages' continued existence is owed to Saunder’s championing and a Western culture questing after exoticism.

That’s when head bartender U Hla Myint first came to tend The Strand’s bar. He and his staff dress in the plain black and white tunics of the hotel’s staff, and stir and mix drinks every day in what feels like an archaic English hunting lodge—creamy teak wood, red vinyl chairs, a matching pool table, complex wooden engravings, whirring ceiling fans, a collection of wall mirrors, a large box of select cigars, an old style draft beer tower, and small bowls filled to the brim with redskin peanuts. The cocktail menu only offers its prices in American dollar amounts, the choice currency in Myanmar, though only extremely crisp bills are accepted and one hundred dollar denominations are preferred.

The house cocktail is The Strand Sour made with Mandalay Rum, the national liquor. But unknown to most locals, they also serve The Pegu Club cocktail, the original colonial beverage. Hla Myint says only older folks from the U.K. tend to order it. "A memory in a glass," he calls it, a half grin and slight backhand wave betraying a keen awareness of the drink’s past. "To them, it feels like old times."

Hla Myint is from Yangon, but he’s worked in hotel bars across Southeast Asia for 36 years. He had known about The Pegu Club cocktail for a while, but only decided to make it once he came to The Strand. Many British guests and a few Americans would ask about it, thinking that a passing mention of the club in George Orwell’s Burmese Days meant the country was inundated with the drink.

"Some people bring their grandfather and grandmother because they are told about the writers that were in Myanmar," he said. "It’s their way to look back."

Pegu Club

The Strand's Pegu Club cocktail. Photo courtesy of The Strand Hotel.

But this cocktail doesn’t have much grounding in Myanmar anymore. Its foundation is built by British Imperials, and the beverage’s continued existence is owed to Saunders' championing and a Western culture questing after exoticism. In the West, the drink is not only enjoyed for its crisp and refreshing taste but also its unusual origins and history, likely owing its popularity in some small part to the trend that has produced the proto-tiki movement. Going through a typical tourist’s barhopping in Yangon, which tends to end by 11 p.m. because of maddening governmental restrictions, and asking for a Pegu Club cocktail will only lead you to a series of local bartenders who will shrug and ask for the cocktail’s ingredients—a problem all its own as the ingredients aren’t necessarily available.

"The Pegu Club here has no Angostura bitters because we cannot get them," Hla Myint explained. "I changed the original, but made it a signature cocktail because it’s the country’s most famous cocktail."

This is another genuine annoyance for Myanmar’s bars. In the United States, you can buy these bitters anywhere—Walmart, Amazon, nearly any liquor store or whimsical boutique—but not here. This country’s government has long frowned upon importing foreign booze, and times haven’t changed even with a move away from the controlling junta towards civilian governance. Today, due to archaic laws and bureaucracies, almost 90 percent of liquor imports are considered illegal. Though distributors previously used a loophole that allowed hotels to bring in these imports, a series of high-profile raids in late 2013 proved the government had grown weary of this practice. And now Hla Myint has to experiment to replace the necessary Angostura bitters.

"We don’t make it like the original, so my idea is to use Martini Rosso," he said. "The guests think it’s good, so I don’t say anything."

The ban on imports has gotten so bad that local distributors have created counterfeit versions of popular liquors. Local distillers collect used bottles from hotels, restaurants, and bars’ trash, fill them up with local booze, and sell them back at an inflated price. Yet Myanmar’s Tax Advisory Board and Ministry of Commerce still haven’t made a change. It seems bartenders, like Hla Myint, will continue to struggle with a growing ex-pat community, tourists, and Westernized locals who are creating a market that the country’s government is unwilling to address.

A few days after my initial attempt to enter the crumbling Pegu Club, I receive an email from a Yangon local who had agreed to help me find a way in. "Regarding Pegu Club," he wrote, "they want us to write a request letter to the Yangon Command. However it will not be sure to get the permission."

The Yangon command is the city’s military authority, though the Myanmar colonel I spoke to said they had long ceded ownership of The Pegu Club property to civilian developers. The local, whose name must remain omitted, suggested I go to the gatehouse and "try to enter by paying some tip money to the gatekeeper." Some might call that idea a bribe, which seemed a worthwhile attempt and somehow appropriate. That’s how some folks find their way into today’s elite clubs.

But I never found an opportunity to pull out the 30,000 kyat wad (about $30) I’d set aside for "tip money." A generous amount, I’d been told. First, I walked around the club’s concrete wall and asked a few of the street merchants who setup shop on its perimeter if folks had been let inside lately. Most seemed unsure and returned to their work, and the most informative one made a locking motion with his hand and shook his head. I took photos over the top of the walls to get a better idea of the landscape within and snapped pictures of the bustling area surrounding it. Next to the entrance, a police officer sat underneath a tent and smoked a cheroot in the midst of a haircut. He watched as I took additional photos through the gate and waited for a gatekeeper to show up to the small, locked, and decrepit booth where I planned to make my entrance. When I approached him, he laughed at my questions and indicated a sign that said, "Attention to all Foreigner (sic) and Guests … No. GE-954 Construction Engineering Force Myoma Kayaung Street, Dagon." It listed a name and number for the building’s duty officer, a call to whom would have only led me back to the Yangon command.

"Under military control," he said, chewing on the end of his cigar with teeth that looked like candy corn. The police officer went back to his seat and his haircut and continued to watch, while I persisted in waiting with my camera in hand.

Do not enter. Photo by Phil McCausland.

What needs to be understood about Myanmar culture is that cameras and questions aren’t looked kindly upon by people in authority, or anyone for that matter. Years under a totalitarian regime where journalists and protesters were quickly thrown into jail have earned both groups either suspicion or fear. Photography is a pursuit that is frowned upon and taking pictures of areas deemed restricted can be pretty damning, so it should have come as no surprise when the generally friendly atmosphere took a startling shift. More and more people started to eye me and gave me a larger berth as they did their best to avoid being lumped in with my activities. Another 20 minutes passed before a man walked across The Pegu Club’s grounds, came to the door, and seemed to wave at me. His already furrowed brow earned additional furrows when I asked if I could come in, and he waved even more animatedly. I took this as an invitation and pushed at the door, which earned an even greater response.

"No, no, no," he said, his hands continuing to wave furiously from behind the door. The police officer got up and began to walk over, as did a security guard from across the street. They yelled in Burmese, and I found myself being herded around the corner. I walked away from them, and they continued to tail me past the police station, until I hopped into a taxi—my ambition to enter thwarted. But that isn’t surprising. The Pegu Club has definitely undergone changes in the almost 145 years since its inception. Yet the rules of the club aren’t all that different, and the people who enjoy the cocktail are very much the same.

The Pegu Club itself continues to operate under the rules of a government who, like the British Empire, brutalized its way into a position of authority. Meanwhile, white tourists come to Yangon to visit a romanticized memory of Western power through relics like the Pegu Club cocktail and The Strand Hotel. Myanmar is on a historic path, as the country hopes to enjoy its freest election in the fall, but already this seems a dream that will remain unfulfilled. Aung San Suu Kyi had planned to run to replace the current president and former general Thein Sein, but, on June 25, Myanmar’s parliament vetoed a constitutional amendment that would have allowed her to take the position, thusly ensuring that the military’s veto power remains undamaged. As much momentum as the country has gained since 2011, this act proves the military’s unwillingness to relinquish its hold over Myanmar.

These dire forecasts also mean The Pegu Club will remain abandoned for the foreseeable future. Whatever The Pegu Club and its cocktail’s history, its future is most telling. Whether it becomes a bar, hotel, museum, restaurant, or remains an empty shell, it will be a marker of Myanmar’s trajectory. But today it attests that if the military and government do not change, Myanmar could remain static for another 50 years—a terrifying prospect for the many who have enjoyed a taste of the world outside the country’s borders.

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