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Recipes and Stories

5 August 2012: Maharaja’s Burra Peg

Mahraja's Burra Peg, photographed by John Carrington

When the weather turns lethally hot in August, it will surprise no one who has ever been near Savannah to learn that a popular local prescription for relief is both old fashioned and alcoholic: the champagne cocktail. Though the popularity of these concoctions peaked in the 1940s and 50s, their roots go back at least to the late eighteenth century, when champagne punches were popularized by the likes of England’s Prince Regent George IV. Savannah had its own variation on the idea—our infamous Chatham Artillery Punch, and a simpler punch that was for all intents and purposes a champagne cocktail in one big bowl—champagne fortified with lemon juice, sugar, and brandy or whiskey. By mid-twentieth century, the combination was turning up in Savannah cookbooks as a “King’s Peg” (“peg,” in this instance, being an old English word for a “jigger”).

In his book American Cooking: Southern-Style, from the Time-Life series Foods of the World, Eugene Walter linked Savannah to a variation on that cocktail called a Maharaja’s Burra Peg. He’d been introduced to it by Mrs. Henrietta Waring, who believed it to have been her father’s invention. But the long link to Savannah that Walter supposed is doubtful. Mrs. Waring’s father almost certainly got it from Charles Baker’s The Gentleman’s Companion, published in 1937. Describing this drink as being to “the ordinary champagne cocktail what Helen of Troy was to a local shepherd’s maiden,” Baker proceeded to outline a recipe that involved the largest goblet that could be had and two full jiggers of whiskey. “Burra,” you see, is Hindustani for “big.”

Never mind the size: the thing that really sets this cocktail apart from the others is the bitters-soaked sugar cube. For my Savannah Cookbook, I pared it down to fit into a standard champagne flute. If you think you can handle the original, well have at it.

Serves 4
1 lime
4 sugar cubes
Angostura bitters
4 jiggers of cognac or single-barrel bourbon, chilled
Ice-cold medium dry champagne

1. Peel 4 long, thin curls of zest from the lime with the large channel blade on the side of a bar zester. Put the sugar cubes on a saucer and sprinkle them with droplets of bitters until they are saturated but not falling apart. Put a sugar cube in each of 4 champagne flutes.
2. Add a jigger of cognac to each flute and fill it with champagne. Garnish with lime zest, either hanging on the rim or floating in the cocktail, and serve at once.

Variation—Thomas Lippitt’s King’s Peg: Omit the lime and bitters and garnish the cocktail with a twist of lemon zest. Mr. Lippitt also omitted the sugar when the champagne was not very dry.

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