Monday, September 22, 2008

Cocktail of the Day: The Pegu

Three years ago, almost exactly, I caught some appalling virus from some student or other. As a result, most of my olfactory nerves were destroyed. I could smell almost nothing--except the most bitter notes of coffee and occasionally gasoline, faintly. I could taste nothing at all, except bitter, sour, salty and sweet--and those only very faintly.

This sucked, losing the two senses through which I experienced much of the pleasure of the world. My house had been full of nicely-scented things: green tea soap, candles that smelled like musk and rain. I've always grown lavender so I could pick a sprig of it and enjoy its scent on my fingers. And I used to love, almost more than anything else, going into very good restaurants and trying new and complex combinations of food and wine. And then, of course, scent and taste are ways of knowing other people, and even oneself, more truly than words.

All of these pleasures, all of these ways of knowing were just---gone, for well over two years. Fortunately, olfactory nerves usually grow back, so I had reason to hope. In the meantime, I began to appreciate Zen and the Heart Sutra. Life without major senses could also be quite peaceful.

In the meantime, I became interested in vintage cocktails, and the nearly lost art of balancing bitter, sour and sweet to precision and perfection. I ran across a recipe for one that was both exquisite, challenging to the contemporary palate, and perfectly exemplary of the spirit, mood and flavor of the classic vintage cocktail: The Pegu.

I saved the recipe all these years, in the eventuality that my senses would come back to me. And now that they have, mostly, I finally made a Pegu for the first time, today.

Like most things that attract me, the Pegu cocktail comes with an evocative but troubling backstory. The Pegu club, so legend has it, was a British gentleman's club just outside of Rangoon, in the 1880s. And these gentlemen--British officers with backstories of their own, sipped this delicious, icy gin concoction after breathing Burmese dust after a long hard day of colonizing. Think Rudyard Kipling. Try not to think of the horrific British colonists in Conrad's Heart of Darkness who, when asked how they kept their whites so white in Africa, responded in clipped tones: "I have a wench to do it for me."

Think of the lovely modernist and exotic romances that accompany the hand watercolored drawings of the lovely but affordable clothes in the J. Peterman catalog: a South that was full of gentlemen who knew horses and ladies sashaying on verandas, with nary a slave in sight, or an exotic Orient lavish with silk and spices, minus systematic colonial eradication of complex local structures.

It's forever been an issue with me, a sybarite with a social conscience, refusing to sacrifice either. I've refused to embrace the puritanical denial of all pleasures that resolves the issue for most socialists I know. And I've refused as well to forget that most of the luxuries I enjoy come at the cost of somebody else's labor.

Politically, I've always claimed to be an anarchist of the Bakuninite tradition. Bakunin, seriously and passionately devoted to the anarchist cause, was said to have guzzled the finest brandy like wine, and smoked 1,600 very good cigars in a single month of imprisonment in Saxony.

I do not wish to do away with luxury. I wish that all the world should enjoy beautiful things.

And so today, my very first taste, after three years waiting, of the Pegu.

Ai, it was worth the wait--sweet dry sharpness of good gin, sweetness of oranges, sour brightness of limes, all rolling cold and delicious and bitter sweet across my tongue.

Here is an easy recipe: Combine in a shaker, with ice: 1.5 oz of good dry gin, .5 oz cointreau, .75 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice, and 2 dashes of angostura bitters. Shake until your hands freeze to the metal of the shaker and you think of the poor stupid little brother in A Christmas Story with his tongue stuck to the metal pole, shattering all your banal vintage exoticist fantasies. Strain into a pre-chilled martini glass. Sit down and prepare to savor---very slowly. If you want to go for vintage authenticity, use orange bitters and orange curacao instead.

This is a cocktail to consider, to savor for its own exquisite bittersweet sake. This is a cocktail for every one of your senses, for being wide awake and brightly, blessedly alive.