The first of Lorenzo Antorini’s chats with friends of Charles H. Baker Jnr sees him talking to award-winning writer, bartender and owner of Fort Defiance bar and café in Red Hook Brooklyn, St. John Frizell.
Illustration: Rick Kim @reecc; photography: @jessicafradonophoto)
How and when did you become a fan of Charles H. Baker Jnr?
The full story is in the introduction that I wrote for the Cocktail Kingdom reprint of Charles H. Baker’s South American Gentleman’s Companion. It started in 2000, when a friend of mine in Brooklyn loaned me a copy of the 1946 Gentleman’s Companion that he’d picked up on a whim at a secondhand bookstore in Cooperstown, NY. At the time, both of us had a great interest in making cocktails at home, and wanted to learn more about what we sensed was a rich history of making drinks. Needless to say, my friend never got that book back.
From that point on, I just started researching. There was almost nothing available online, so I spent a lot of time at my local library on 5th Ave. and 42nd. As many Baker fans can attest: the more you learn, the more you want to learn – Baker is the gateway into a wonderful, exotic world of adventure and romance.
You’ve travelled around South America, following the path of Charles in the South American Gentleman’s Companion, how many of the places in the book are still operating? And is there one in particular that you are particularly attached to?
As you may expect, not many of the places that Baker writes about still exist. It almost seems that the less the local economy had grown, the more likely it would be that the old places were still there. Most of the restaurants and hotels that Baker mentioned in Buenos Aires are gone, for instance, and replaced by newer buildings and businesses. But many of the sites in smaller, less affluent countries still exist. I recently made it to the charming Georgetown Club in Georgetown, Guyana (thanks in part to Justin Lane Briggs). And I was blown away by the spectacle of the Ski Club Andino Boliviano, high up on Mt. Chacaltaya outside of La Paz, which I describe at the end of my biographical article about CHB. It took some detective work and a few bolivianos to get there, but it was worth it. (Incidentally, the glacier that the club was built on has disappeared since I was there due to climate change.)
Vintage cocktail books often contain recipes which can be a bit challenging on the palate. How have you recreated Charles H. Baker’s recipes?
I think CHB gets a bad rap, as far as this goes. It’s acceptable (and even fun) for bartenders to laugh at Baker drinks like the Firpo’s Balloon – objectively speaking, a bad drink as written – but other books written during the same period (and of course, even today!) contain some pretty awful ‘what-were-they-thinking’ recipes. When approaching these drinks, we always start with what’s on the page, try it, and then start to think about the true character of the drink, i.e. what was Baker going for here? What was it about this drink that appealed to him so much that he recorded it? Once we’ve come up with a theory on that, we can get to work getting the drink into shape. What could have got lost in translation, or maybe transcribed incorrectly? What about this drink has to change to appeal to a contemporary palate? What ingredients have changed completely, and how did they change? I try to keep all the ingredients in the drink, though I take liberties with the proportions. Many drinks take very little work to get into shape; a few are irredeemable.
Do you have a favourite recipe from the Companions? And if so, why?
That’s a very difficult question for me, as I’m sure you can imagine! I’m going to have to say the Colonial Cooler – I gave my adaptation to Liquor.com a few years ago. That recipe has everything we love about Baker: cruise ships, lifeboats, cobras, “a maze of godowns and Chinese loan-farms,” and lonely British officers, not to mention gin, vermouth, and a pretty good improvised Pimm’s Cup facsimile.
Baker was probably one of the first people who elevated cocktails to the same status of food, creating recipes which could be replicated at home and enjoyed between friends in a convivial setting. What’s your take on this?
Although CHB wrote for home bartenders, it would be misleading to say that he valued simplicity. He praised the unfamiliar and exotic, and pushed his audience to widen their palates and explore new flavours and, by extension, unfamiliar cultures. I think he can be credited with being one of the progenitors of “food tourism” – specifically, of approaching other cultures through its food. If he had a show on the Food Network today, I think it would look something like Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”
He always liked a good show, and I think he would be delighted by how today’s bartenders are creating new ways to combine flavours and serve drinks. He didn’t criticise much, but when he did, his targets were people that made weak or bad drinks, and the boring rich; he preferred to surround himself with writers, artists, sportsmen, vagabonds – the “really interesting people” he talks about in the foreword to the GC Volume I (Around the World with Knife, Fork, and Spoon).
From all of the Charles H. Baker stories told in the Companions, which is the one that you would have most wanted to have experienced and why?
Paris, 1926. Baker ended up living across the street from Harry’s New York Bar on Rue Danou and dating the Tiller Girls, the resident dance troupe at the Folies Bergeres: “They were all allowed nights out until midnight, so we started at the end of the line and went along, counting off from right to left; and what dancing partners; what grand fun they were!” Enough said.
Where do you think Charles would love to drink now?
Any place where there are really interesting people.
The Colonial Cooler adapted by St. John Frizell
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a Highball glass filled with fresh ice. Top up with soda water. Garnish with a mint sprig and cucumber slice. Or leave out the cucumber altogether and garnish with a pineapple spear, as Baker does.