James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Whole Lot of Effort Just to Order a Pink Gin

A Whole Lot of Effort Just to Order a Pink Gin

Gin Pahits in Kuala Lumpur

It’s noon. I’ve just exited the old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, and am already sweating. It isn’t far to the Majestic Hotel, but the sun is brutal, and there’s a busy six-lane road to cross. While this might seem like a lot of effort for a drink, it isn’t just any drink I’m after.

The gin pahit was one of colonial British Malaya’s favorite cocktails, but seems to have fallen out of favor. It disappeared from the Raffles menu in Singapore years ago, and when I asked for one at the Eastern and Oriental in Penang, the bartender looked at me like I was speaking Aramaic.

From the corner of Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin and Jalan Sultan Sulaiman, Kuala Lumpur looks much like it did in 1935. The colonial Railway Administration Building is topped with Mughal domes, and the sprawling station resembles a backdrop from The Thief of Bagdad. Across the road is the Majestic, the finest hotel in Kuala Lumpur when it opened in 1932. The original wing has preserved its 1930s British glamor: jazz in the bar, tea in the drawing room. There’s a Truefitt & Hill barber shop, a bespoke tailor, and a cigar lounge (with smoking jackets provided). If there is anywhere I can get a gin pahit, it’s here.

As I wait for a gap in the traffic, drivers slow down and stare. One honks his horn, then yells “Hello!” I’m a strange and foolish sight, standing at the roadside in the midday sun. I jog across to the Majestic’s distinctive porte-cochere, where a doorman greets me. Though Malaysia has been independent since 1957, he’s sporting British knee-socks and a pith helmet. He’s smiling, but his eyes betray surprise, even concern. People don’t walk to the Majestic Hotel.

I sink into a leather stool at the bar and ask for the fabled gin pahit. The bartender goes to work. Gin pahit means “bitter gin” in Malay, and it has only two ingredients: gin and Angostura bitters. Angostura’s secret blend of botanicals was believed to cure seasickness and repel mosquitoes, making it popular in Britain’s tropical colonies.

You can request the bitters “in” or “out.” My 1939 edition of The Gentleman’s Companion describes the “out” process: “Take a thin, stemmed cocktail glass. Shake in four or five dashes of Angostura, tip the glass like the tower of Pisa and twirl it between thumb and fingers. Whatever Angostura sticks to the glass…is precisely the right amount. Gently pour off the extra bitters. Fill glass with gin.”

I like bitters, and prefer the excess left in. The more you add, the rosier the drink, which is why the 19th-century Royal Navy officers who are thought to have invented the concoction called it a pink gin. It’s traditionally served at room temperature, but nowadays you’re unlikely to be shamed for plunking in a chip of ice. A gin pahit is short and powerful. Its effects are instantly bracing. I think of the heat that awaits me outside, and order another.

The Majestic Hotel Bar
5 Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin
Daily 11.30 a.m. to 11.00 p.m.

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