“Would you like to run a training session in Yangon?” This is the mail that got me serendipitously to Rangoon — or Yangon, as it is now known — a place I have long wanted to visit. It has a signal place in cocktail history: it is home to the colonial-era Pegu Club, where the iconic, and eponymous, gin-based cocktail was created. When legendary New York bartender Audrey Saunders opened a new bar in her city in 2005, she chose to name it for the drink, thus giving it a new lease of life. Visiting the Pegu Club, and drinking the cocktail in Yangon, would fill my cup. It does not take much, as you can see!
Gekko, Merchant Street
My first stop is Gekko, a Japanese restaurant with a cosy cocktail lounge. The Asian bartending grapevine had given me a list of places to visit and people to meet. One of them is Jen Queen, who, to my surprise, turns out to be a Master Mescalier (an expert in Mescal) from San Diego, via Cambodia. She runs the bar operations for the 57 Below Group (owners of Gekko), among others. Queen is in Bangkok on my first night in Yangon, but we make a date to meet a couple of nights later. Gekko is situated in the beautiful Sofaer and Co building, built in 1906. Its name translates to moonshine in Japanese, and retro-style lanterns light up the bar with a large, open Japanese kitchen at one end. I spot an Old Fashioned on the menu, smoked with the bark of the local Thanaka tree. It reminds me of the women I had noticed on my way from the airport, with paste smeared on their faces. “It’s a local face cream,” my driver had informed me, “called thanaka paste, made from the [eponymous] tree.” My smoked Thanaka is perfectly balanced — one person’s salve is another’s salvation.
Sarkies, Strand Road
The bar at The Strand Hotel is my next stop, named after the Sarkies brothers — Armenian refugees and influential hoteliers in Asia (founders of E&O in Penang and Singapore’s Raffles Hotel) — who acquired it soon after it was built in 1901. The hotel is a short walk from my hotel in Chinatown, and is located near the bustling docks in downtown Yangon. The doorman, however, looks askance at my T-shirt and jeans. He lightens when I mention Sarkies. The bar is delightful, and ‘Diamond’s are forever’ is playing as I enter. Queen later tells me that Francesco Moretti, who is now at The Penthouse, helped revamp the cocktail programme. It is clear his influence is still present. I start my evening with a Strand Sour, with Mandalay Rum standing in for whisky. It is expertly mixed, and I am so enthused that I buy a bottle of Mandalay the next day. Moretti had also instituted a barrel-aged programme (cocktails that acquire woody notes in an oak barrel), and there is a row of barrels on the back bar, with two in use: a classic Negroni, and a Cuban Manhattan (with rum instead of whisky). I ask the talented Ye Lin Aung at the bar to give me a taste of the Cuban, even as I anticipate the Pegu Club I plan to order next, thanks to my aborted mission earlier (see box). The cocktail is simple but lip-smacking and, in the Strand’s version, uses gin, Cointreau, lime juice, bitters and orange juice. A little tart, but well balanced.
Pegu Club: It was set up by the British in 1880 to serve army officers and soon became an iconic watering hole. It has strong literary connections, with George Orwell referring to it in his book, Burmese Days, and Rudyard Kipling recalling that the club was “full of men on their way up or down”, after his visit in 1889 as a young newspaperman. My actual visit to the Club the day before, however, was abortive. The colonial era building is being renovated, and high walls and tight security prevented me from walking in. My hints of Nehru and Aung San being good friends fell on deaf ears, and when I began taking snaps, the security came out threateningly. Unsure of the precise ownership, I decided to not take a chance and sped away in my taxi.
Union Bar and Grill, Strand Road
My last stop is at the Red Cross. My interest is in the bar that occupies one part of its ground floor, the Union Bar and Grill, where I finally meet Queen. I settle at the large island bar, with an interesting bulb display over it, and peruse the menu. I am intrigued by a section called Get Trashed, an attempt to support sustainability, by reusing edible waste and “upcycling ingredients that would normally be thrown in the trash, like pineapple husks, avocado pits and banana peels”. I choose a cocktail called the Husky Vegan, which uses a dried banana whiskey, pineapple husk reduction, aquafaba (a fancy word for chick pea water) and lemon, and believe me, it tastes much better than it sounds.
Yangon has been a revelation, and I am waiting for another mail to pop up in my inbox.
This series tracks the best of South East Asia’s ever-changing bar scene. The writer is co-founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm