October 17, 1943 marked the completion of the infamous Burma Railway for which we’ll be mixing up a Pegu Club cocktail. Also known as the Death Railway, you’ve heard of it if you’ve ever watched the film Bridge on the River Kwai.
Burma, you see, was strategically important to Japan’s ambitious WWII plans for two big reasons. First was that it was the southern end of the Burma Road, a critical supply artery for China in the Sino-Japanese War. Second, controlling Burma would put Japan on the doorstep of British India. As the war developed the Burma Railway was a result that leads to the Pegu Club as our Drink of the Day. After all, it was the house cocktail at the Pegu Club, the British Officers Club in Rangoon, Burma.
The Burma Railway
During the early parts of the war in the Pacific Japanese forces struck Allied bases throughout the western Pacific and Southeast Asia. By the spring of 1942 they had captured the Allied strongholds of Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. Along the way they picked up around 140,000 Allied prisoners of war and about 130,000 civilians.
But by mid-1942 the Japanese lost the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway Island and the sea lanes between Japan and Burma were no longer secure. Another option was needed to support the troops. So what to do? They figured why not build a railway from already-controlled Thailand to Burma. How do you do it? Forced labor, of course.
By that time Japan had a huge pool of captive labor available and they enlisted around 200,000 Asian conscripts and over 60,000 Allied prisoners of war to build it. They started in June 1942 upon completion in October 1943 around 258 miles of track had been laid.
This wasn’t so easy. The route went through thick, mosquito-infested jungle and rough terrain. Rivers and canyons required bridges and sections of mountains needed to be cut away. And, on top of that, there’s monsoon season. Not exactly friendly working conditions.
Overall it was a genuinely nasty affair. Physical abuse, inadequate rations, rampant disease, you name it. More than 12,000 Allied prisoners of war and tens of thousands of civilian forced laborers perished during the construction. At the end of the war the Allies tore up the Burma side of the route and sold the Thai portion to its government. Nowadays you can visit the actual bridge over the River Kwai. In the movie they at least got to blow it up, or it wouldn’t have been much of a third act.
The Pegu Club
You may have read about the New York Bar Pegu Club here when we discussed some of Audrey Saunders’ drinks like the Fitty-Fittty Martini and the always popular Little Italy cocktail. She obviously thought the Pegu Club was a good enough classic cocktail to name her whole bar after it.
So where did the Pegu Club cocktail come from and how does it relate to the Burma Railway? You see, it was the house cocktail of the Pegu Club, the British Officers Club in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar) when it was a British colony. Established in 1871, for decades it served as a hangout for British officers and administrators. But when the Japanese took over the country in 1942 they claimed it as their property and turned it into a “comfort station,” also known as brothel.
We don’t know if the Japanese occupiers drank any Pegu Club cocktails, but the Brits sure did when it was under their control. It’s a bracing drink containing gin, lime juice, orange curacao and bitters. Nobody knows who first created it, but it gained widespread exposure in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book. As he wrote, “A favorite cocktail of the Pegu Club, Burma, and one that has traveled, and is asked for, round the world.” So we recommend trying it.
Pegu Club Cocktail
- 2 oz Gin
- ¾ oz Fresh lime juice
- ¾ oz Curacao
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- 1 dash Orange bitters
- Add all ingredients to your trusty mixing glass.
- Add ice and shake until frosty cold.
- Strain into pre-chilled cocktail glass.
- Pour in the direction of your liver.
- Whistle the Colonel Bogey March.