Gin Pahit & The Drinks of Empire

Pink was the colour of Empire. Anyone who is old enough will remember those world maps on which British colonies, dominions, territories and protectorates were shaded pink.


Pink was also the colour of one of the Empire’s favourite tipples, the Pink Gin.


The Empire was fuelled by booze. It lubricated the wheels of commerce, relieved the boredom of lonely administrators and planters, and it emboldened soldiers and sailors on the brink of battle.

Gin had been a staple in England since the 1600’s when troops fighting the Thirty Years War brought back the recipe from Holland where juniper concoction, genever, was giving their soldiers Dutch Courage.

Gin’s popularity was spread around the world by the Royal Navy. Plymouth Gin Navy Strength first went to sea with the Navy in 1793 and by 1850 they were supplying 1000 barrels a year of this 57% abv (alcohol by volume) drink to the Royal Navy. There are various theories why Navy Strength gin had to be extra strong (regular strength is around 40% abv). The most plausible is due to space constraints on board ship which would have been important when provisioning a vessel for a six month voyage. Stronger alcohol took up less space for the same effect.


The Blackfriars Distillery where Plymouth Gin originated is one of the oldest buildings in Plymouth dating from 1431. The Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night there before setting sail on the Mayflower for America. The Mayflower appears on Plymouth Gin’s logo but it is doubtful that the Pilgrim Fathers were big gin drinkers.

Naval officers (only officers were entitled to gin, other ranks made do with rum) liked to mix their gin with bitters or lime for medicinal purposes. Bitters were invented in the 18th century as a remedy for seasickness while lime was introduced to the Naval diet to prevent scurvy. The addition of bitters also tempered the acidity of citrus so they were a natural combination. In this way, the Royal Navy inadvertently created one of the world’s first cocktails.

Angostura Bitters was invented in 1824 by Dr. Siegert who was Surgeon General to the armies of Simon Bolivar. The town of Angostura is in Venezuela and is now called Ciudad Bolivar. In 1875 the company moved to Trinidad, perhaps to get closer to the Royal Navy which must have been one of their top customers. The recipe of Angostura Bitters remains secret but it is a fragrant and aromatic blend of roots from the gentian (a pretty blue alpine flower) and other botanicals, perhaps including coriander, angelica, orris root, orange peel, cassia bark or nutmeg.

The drink of Empire

By the early 20th century, Pink Gin had spread all over the British Empire and had become an elegant and fashionable drink among the cocktail loving classes. This is a typical recipe:

Fill a mixing glass with ice.

Add 75ml (2 1/2 oz.) of Gin.

Add 2 or 3 dashes of Angostura.

Stir until chilled.

Strain into a (frozen) Martini glass.

In Malaya, Pink Gin was known as Gin Pahit, pahit being Malay for ‘bitter’. The drink is mentioned in many Somerset Maugham stories and it would have been a very common drink in clubs and hotel bars up and down Malaya. The recipe was slightly different in that it used much more bitters, thus more red than pink . The recipe at the Long Bar at the Raffles in Singapore was 1 1/2 oz. gin to 1/2 oz. of Angostura bitters. Perhaps the increased dose of bitters was due to their mosquito repelling qualities, indeed some colonial wives were known to rub bitters on their skin to keep the bugs away.

In modern Malaysia you seldom encounter gin pahit. You can find it on the drinks menu at the retro styled Majestic Hotel in Kuala Lumpur and I expect they could knock you one up at the Coliseum Bar but it has definitely gone out of fashion. It is too alcoholic a drink for contemporary tastes.

On the rare occasion when I fancy a medicinal gin I prefer a much longer drink. This is my recipe, which I’ll call Travellers Gin:

Ingredients of Travellers Gin A measure of gin.

8 dashes of Angostura.

The juice of 4 limau kasturi or kalamansi (local sweet limes).

Mix in a tall glass with ice and fill to the top with tonic.

It is ideal for tropical conditions with the anti-malarial quinine content in the tonic, the anti-mosquito qualities of the bitters and the aqua vitae effect of the gin.

One is enough!

Travellers Gin

If God didn’t want us to drink, why did He give us hops?

Medicinal Pink Gin

Ipoh – Heritage Walk. Part 1.

When you step off the train in Ipoh you are already standing in the city’s number one landmark, the magnificent neo-classical Ipoh Railway Station, completed in 1917. This building, which also contains the Majestic Hotel, was designed by that industrious and talented government architect,  A B Hubback who planned many of Malaysia’s other famous old buildings from that era.

Ipoh's Railway Station 

Taking advantage of KTM’s smart new Korean-built electric train service, I completed the 200 km trip from Kuala Lumpur in 2 hours and 17 minutes for a fare of RM30 each way. The train was punctual, the air-conditioning was set at a comfortable temperature, the movie (Cinderella Story) had the volume down low so I had no complaints at all.  And the guy who cleaned the toilets kept them in gleaming condition so he deserves a pat on the back.

The New KL/Ipoh Train

Ipoh is a compact city and I was able to see many of its attractions within walking distance of the station.

I began by taking the ancient caged lift outside the station entrance up to the lobby of the Majestic Hotel which sits above the station. This hotel has seen better days. Once grand, it now offers rooms at just RM75 per night including breakfast. Its colour brochure boasts of a bar with a snooker table but I was told by the receptionist that they do not serve beer any more.  Still, I was able to take in the view from the hotel’s massive verandah and pick up a couple of excellent maps of Ipoh’s Heritage Trail published by Kinta Heritage.

The Majestic's rooms open out onto this enormous verandah.

Just in front of the station is a small park containing an example of the Ipoh tree after which the city was named. The tree, which looks harmless enough, apparently contains a poisonous sap used for making deadly blowpipe arrows.

The Ipoh Tree

Somewhat surprisingly, the 132 year old book mentioned on the plaque, ‘Perak and the Malays’, is still in stock on Amazon’s website in case you want to get hold of a copy.

Right across the street from the station are two other splendid colonial piles, The Town Hall and Old Post Office building and the High Court. The Town Hall was designed by, yes, our old friend A B Hubback. I believe this still serves as the City Hall although there is some renovation going on at present.

Town Hall and Old Post Office

The High Court appears to be one the larger employers in town as every other office seems to belong to a lawyer.

Ipoh's High Court

Just behind the Town hall is a clock tower memorial to J W W Birch, the first British Resident of Perak. By all accounts he was rather lacking in inter-personal skills and his bull-in-a-china-shop approach did not win admirers among his Malay hosts. Eventually he was stabbed to death in a riverside bath-house in 1875.

Birch Memorial and detail from one of the side panels.

A number of the suspected instigators of this assassination were hanged including one of the chiefs, Maharajah Lela. However, the Malaysians have since got their own back by naming a street after him, just down the road from the Birch Memorial.

He went that way.

By this time I was really thirsty from traipsing round in the midday Malaysian heat. There must be somewhere around here to get a drink! Ah, this place looks promising.

Wrong sort of bar!

But no, it’s not that kind of bar. This one is the legal kind.

Pressing on, I passed a slightly unusual tourist attraction – a multi-storey car park. It was the first one to be built in Malaysia, in 1960. It looks rather quaint and I could imagine the little Austin A40s and Morris Oxfords that used to struggle up its narrow ramp. Parking is free.

Malaysia's first multi-storey car park.

Next I passed another of those bastions of colonial life for the British in Asia, the Club. This mock Tudor building occupies a prime spot overlooking the padang. No doubt the Royal Ipoh Club still includes many of the city’s elite among its members but it is open to non-members too and reasonably priced accommodation is available for those looking for an alternative to a hotel.

Ipoh Club

Continuing up Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (formerly Club Road) you reach St. John’s Church which dates back to 1912. A fairly plain looking exterior and simple whitewashed interior, you could think you were in England. Only the ceiling fans give a clue that this is the tropics. The church apparently served as a noodle factory for the Japanese occupiers during WWII.

Church of St. John The Divine

Another sweaty five minute walk brought me to the small Darul Ridzuan Museum. Nothing much to right home about. A mixed bag of exhibits covering history, local industries, flora and fauna and so on. Downstairs the showcase explanations were written in Bahasa only so not very informative for foreign visitors. At least entrance was free and the place was air-conditioned and a welcome respite from the blazing heat outside.

Darul Ridzuan Museum

Now I was hungry and thirsty.  I was looking forward to reaching the F.M.S. Bar & Restaurant, said to be the oldest restaurant in Malaysia, housed in a building which makes even KL’s famous old Coliseum Restaurant look modern. Passing the impressive St. Michael’s School on the way, I cut across the grass of the padang only to find that the F.M.S. was undergoing some serious renovation and clearly would not be serving lunch for some time.

St. Michael's Institution & FMS Restaurant

Finding myself in the financial heart of Ipoh, I was pleased to see some grand old bank buildings in fine condition. Top of the pile of course is the imposing Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building, built in 1931.


The original banking hall has been substantially altered (vandalized?) to make way for automated banking terminals and such like but I suppose we should be grateful that the exterior has remained intact. The Bank is not known for putting sentimentality about its buildings ahead of shareholders’ returns.

The former HSBC subsidiary, Mercantile Bank’s Ipoh branch building is also in pristine condition although it is now occupied by a beauty products retailer. This building is the same age as HSBC’s but was built in more of an Art Deco style.

Former Mercantile Bank's Ipoh Office

Across the street,  Chartered Bank’s old office building, which was completed in 1924, is still in use by Standard Chartered and looking good.

StanChart's Prestigious Ipoh Building

Facing Stan Chart is the headquarters of the former Straits Trading, built in 1907. This company used to buy up locally mined tin ore and sell it internationally. It was the boom in tin mining that powered Ipoh’s rapid growth and prosperity around the beginning of the 20th century. The Straits Trading Building is now occupied by OCBC Bank.

Straits Trading Building (OCBC)

With all these banks around you would think that the National Union of Bank Employees would be more busy.

No 'uge Bonuses 'ere!

By now I was dying of thirst and hunger. See how I got on in Part 2 of the Heritage Walk.

Majestic Hotel, Malacca

During our recent visit to Melaka (Malacca), I was pleased to see that the old Majestic Hotel is still standing. In fact, not only is the classic 1920’s mansion still standing, it has been rejuvenated and transformed into a real beauty. We had last seen the Majestic in June 1992. Together with my wife and first-born child, then only 7 months old, we were spending an enjoyable holiday in Malaysia. After a few days in Penang, I rented a car and thought we would slowly drive down to Singapore, stopping off in a few interesting places along the way (Cameron Highlands, KL and Melaka). When we arrived in Melaka there was some event going on meaning that every decent hotel in town was fully booked (I never made advance reservations in those days). We were tired and it was getting late when we stumbled upon the Majestic. It didn’t look much from the outside. It must have been a grand residence once but by the time of our visit it was looking quite tired and run down. Still, even if it was a dump, we were desperate and I imagined that it might have some spacious old rooms inside with charm and character. Reluctantly, my wife agreed to try it.

Majestic Hotel in 1992

‘Any room for the night?’ I asked the elderly Chinese manager at the reception desk cum bar. ‘Fully booked’ he replied ‘we have one room but no good.’ We inspected the room. He was right, it was no good. It was somewhere in the rear of the hotel, tucked away under the stairs. It had no bathroom, no air conditioning and no windows!

‘How much?’ I asked. ‘Fifteen ringgit’ he replied.

‘We’ll take it’. I think he overcharged us but it is probably one of the cheapest room I have ever stayed in.

There was a squalid toilet and shower at the end of the corridor, perhaps used by staff. It was one of those sweltering Malaysian nights and the room was like an oven. After an excellent meal at a nearby outdoor restaurant, washed down by a couple of large bottles of Guinness, we retired to the room for a very uncomfortable night but at least our infant son slept well.

The Same Hotel in 2010.

As you can see from the recent photo, the hotel has been restored to its former glory. The renovation has been done tastefully and the interior layout of the lobby area has been left more or less unchanged. Many of the original architectural features have been preserved. Even the floor tiles in the lobby are the same as those in 1992, only a lot cleaner and shinier!

A high rise extension has been added at the rear which houses the 50 or so rooms and suites. The original building serves as the lobby, bar and dining areas.

The new owners, the YTL group (who manage a few other classic hotels in Malaysia), deserve a pat on the back for a job well done. It would have been so easy, and possibly more lucrative, to demolish the old building and redevelop the whole site but then the charm and character of the old hotel would have been lost forever. Of course, the rooms cost a bit more than RM15 per night these days. According to the website you could expect to spend upwards of USD250 per night. Being The Thrifty Traveller, that is rather more than I would normally spend but if I ever feel the need to splurge, the Majestic Hotel would definitely be my preferred choice in Melaka.

Anchor Shandy, Majestic, June 1992