One of the central missions of Pegu Club, the New York bar that Audrey Saunders ran from 2005 to 2020, was to change customers’ ingrained drinking habits, or at least open them up to new cocktails and spirits; she called it “my quest to introduce forgotten ingredients to a modern, stateside audience.”
In 2006, few people in the United States understood the appeal of gin or pastis. Saunders’ rather counterintuitive solution to this problem was to put both the gin and the pastis in the same shaken drink—along with lime juice, simple syrup and mint leaves. She called it the French Pearl.
“I had the pleasure of fully experiencing both absinthe and pastis during my trips to Europe in the early aughts,” explains Saunders. “While you couldn’t purchase absinthe in the U.S. at that time due to its ban, you could, however, buy pastis. I found pastis to be quite refreshing.”
The name of the cocktail was a reference both to the popularity of pastis in late-1800s France as well as the opalescent quality brought about by louching in the glass—an effect that Saunders considered the drink’s “garnish.”
The French Pearl debuted on the Pegu menu in spring 2006. Samuel Kinsey—an ardent regular at the bar in its early days and a bit of an amateur Pegu Club historian—saw the drink as another in a line of Saunders Mojito explorations.
“She had taken inspiration from the Mojito and Moscow Mule to get her iconic Gin-Gin Mule and made a kind of luxe version of the Mojito in her equally well-known Old Cuban,” he theorizes. “The French Pearl also sits in this space. There’s lime and mint just as in a Mojito, except it’s an up drink with the addition of Pernod.”
Saunders remembers the drink becoming an early favorite of guests at Pegu, one that was much discussed on the drink-oriented chat rooms of the time, such as eGullet.org. Kinsey recalled the French Pearl’s reception as being another case of “Audrey’s done it again!”
Another early adopter was Allen Katz, who was then working as the director of mixology and spirits education at Southern Wine & Spirits; he went on to found the New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn, which makes gin, among other spirits. When he walked into Pegu, the bartenders would begin to mix up a French Pearl, assuming (correctly) that would be his first round.
Still, the central note of the drink, pastis, was daunting for some, and not everyone was an epicure like Katz and Kinsey.
“Pernod was an unusual flavor for people to get used to, but I do remember people liking it,” recalls Brian Miller, one of the bartenders on the opening staff at Pegu Club. “But I also remember it not being as popular as I had hoped it would be because I really like it.”
In recent years, the French Pearl has developed a reputation as a kind of unsung classic, a Pegu staple that got somewhat buried and lost under all the praise heaped on better-known Saunders drinks like the Old Cuban, Gin-Gin Mule and Little Italy.
“I think the big difference is that I served the Gin-Gin Mule and the Old Cuban frequently during my earlier trips to London, which gave them an opportunity to grow legs,” says Saunders. She had created both those drinks years before opening Pegu Club. Once Pegu was up and running, Saunders didn’t have as much time for travel. As a result, she says, “The French Pearl became more word-of-mouth that stemmed from Pegu itself.”
Katz believes the sudden avalanche of new gin cocktails in the late aughts—partly brought about by gin evangelists such as Saunders and himself—may have helped to obscure the French Pearl’s standing as a pioneering modern gin drink.
“The stalwarts were all there,” said Katz, “and then an influx of newcomers—some good, some far less so—muddied the waters.”
Over time, however, the drink caught on and traveled. It became a favorite order at the London version of the famed Milk & Honey. It was served elsewhere in London at Satan’s Whiskers, and has also been spotted in Germany and Japan. In the United States, it has been sold at such disparate bars and restaurants as Paschall Bar in Denton, Texas, the French 75 Bar in New Orleans, St. Jack in Portland, Oregon, and White Pillars in Biloxi, Mississippi, where it is listed as a classic cocktail.
This is, in part, thanks to the drink’s die-hard fans, who were always in the French Pearl’s corner and would not let the drink be forgotten.
“I personally think it’s one of the best drinks that was invented at Pegu,” said John Deragon, another early regular at the bar, “and should be, if it [isn’t] already, a modern classic.”