A Champagne Cocktail with a Kick: The Maharajah's Burra-Peg

We have reached the champagne cocktail portion of the Gentleman's Companion. I will admit that I am quite excited--ah, the joy of sparklers. French 75s (and all the other numbers), Seelbachs, Airmails, Morning Glory Royales, Old Cubans, the list goes on and on. Champagne, or any sparkling wine (when used properly, of course), adds pure magic to a cocktail. Some call it bubbles. Others might say it's the dryness or acidity. They are wrong--champagne is pure fairy dust, aka magic. So when I flipped to the introductory statement for the five ensuing champagne cocktails, I almost did a jig. Almost--for I know that these sparklers are still arriving via Mr. Baker and thus will include some hidden surprises. But in my book a scary champagne cocktail is always more exciting and less risky than a scary absinthe and cream cocktail.

Charles Baker came upon this spiked champagne cocktail when his travels took him to India. He explains that a "burra-peg" translates to a large drink, or a double--and that in turn, at least in colonial times, usually meant a double scotch and soda. Rudyard Kipling, in his short story, "At the End of the Passage," also notes the existence of another variation of the Burra-Peg, something called a "King's Peg," where the whisky is swapped out for cognac, and the soda water is transformed into champagne. It may seem that the terminology shift from a "king" to a "maharajah" is the most significant change that this drink undergoes in the forty years between Kipling's story and Baker's time in India. And while it is impossible to separate the politics of colonialism and imperialism that imbue that specific place and time, reading too much into this difference masks the change that is most relevant to this blog and to other contemporary drinkers: the size. After all, Kipling does not refer to a  "King's Burra-Peg."

When Baker calls the drink large, he is not kidding. One would need 6 ounces of cognac and a whopping 18 ounces of champagne to construct two of these drinks as written. That is almost an entire bottle of champagne for two people. Well, let's just say that no one will every accuse Mr. Baker of not knowing how to party. I have learned from experience, though, that when Mr. Baker calls for a 14 to 16-ounce glass, it is prudent to cut the recipe in half. At least until I have tasted it.

Other than being huge this drink is really not that out there. It is simply a bulked up champagne cocktail, and  I'm a big fan of the traditional champagne cocktail. And what's not to like: a bit of sugar and bitters added to a glass of champagne. (A healthy slug of brandy isn't going to make me like it less, either.) I have always thought of the champagne cocktail as the perfect brunch beverage, regardless of how revered the mimosa has become. For me, the entire idea of brunch revolves around decadence. Partaking in great food, great drinks, great company, and preferably some sunshine for a couple of hours, pretty much requires sacrificing at least an entire afternoon for the pleasure of inactivity. It is almost impossible to be productive after so much relaxation and indulgence. I can't imagine a better way to spend such an occasion than with a glass of champagne tinged pink with bitters, sparkling in that imagined sunshine. What a treat it would be to stare down a Maharajah's Burra-Peg over brunch--I don't think I would be able to worry about anything at all.

Maharajah's Burra-Peg (as adapted)

For Two:
3 ounces cognac
1/4 ounce simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura Bitters

Stir cognac, syrup, and bitters in an ice-filled mixing glass for 10-15 seconds. Strain into a chilled champagne flute. Top with champagne (I suggest 3 ounces each, maximum). Garnish with a lime twist.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Masson VSOP brandy, a 1:1 simple syrup, and Chateau St. Michelle sparkling wine.

Generally for a champagne cocktail that includes spirits, I will not add more than three ounces of "champagne," maximum. In fact, less is usually better, though it depends on the specific ingredients. In the past, when I have followed a recipe that called for more than three ounces, balance was quickly lost as the dryness of the wine took over. Now, with sparklers that do not include spirits, each drink must be evaluated individually. I found that adding three ounces of sparkling wine to the Maharajah's Burra-Peg worked very well. 

As far as how this champagne cocktail tasted, it was delicious. It almost makes you remember why Charles Baker drinks can be exceedingly popular. The lime twist really elevated the drink and brought it together in an unexpected way. Over time the alcohol pulled more of the essence out of that little sliver of peel and that just added to the development of the flavors in a really pleasant way. Not only did I find this Baker recipe acceptable, with the tiny, though necessary adjustments, I am positive that we will actually have it again. We may even serve it to guests.

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