The Gentleman's Companion: The Life and Times of Charles H. Baker, Jr.

This is the first post from Paul Clarke, a Seattle-based writer specializing in spirits and cocktails. He publishes The Cocktail Chronicles.

Charles H. BakerIn recent years, vintage bartender’s guides and mixology manuals have become hot items among cocktail fiends and on online auction sites. Little is typically known about many of the authors of these books; among the exceptions are Jerry Thomas, and now, Charles H. Baker.

Starting in the 1930s, Baker authored two inimitable bibles of exotic drinking: The Gentleman’s Companion, and The South American Gentleman’s Companion. Despite the value these volumes have for collectors of vintage drink books, relatively little was known about Baker until recently. This is all changing, thanks to the research of St. John Frizell.

Frizell is a bartender at Pegu Club in Manhattan and the Good Fork in Brooklyn; he has also written about food, drinks and travel for Bon Appétit, Fine Cooking, Islands, Time Out New York, and other publications (a complete list is available at Frizell has explored Baker’s biography and writings for years, and at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, he’s moderating a panel titled “The Gentleman’s Companion: The Life and Times of Charles H. Baker, Jr.”

I recently asked St. John to discuss this panel via e-mail; here’s how the conversation unfolded:

There are a number of people who have written memorable books on cocktails over the years; how does Charles Baker stand out from many of his contemporaries?

Charles H. Baker Jr. is the cocktail world’s great adventurer. His books aren’t just about how to mix drinks–they’re scrapbooks from a life spent traveling around the world, collecting recipes from the world’s most far-flung places. Whether in Athens, Caracas, or Zamboanga, Baker knew where to go and what to order when you got there. Most importantly, his love of food, drink, and good companionship knew no limits, and his joie de vivre comes right off the page—to me, at least.

How do you think Baker’s unique approach to describing a drink–complete with elaborate backstories to the cocktails rendered in a florid Victorian style—has contributed to his lasting appeal?

This is the other thing that sets Baker apart–his prose. Calling his writing style florid is a major understatement. I’ve never read anything quite like it. It’s ridiculously baroque. Last year I read some passages from his books at a Tales event–I practiced reading all morning, and still had a hard time getting out sentences like this one, where Baker describes the female patrons of a restaurant in Montevideo:

a demitasse-sized bevy of slick sultry eager and amiable black-haired young ladies…who sit about with—as one friend expressed it—practically plunging waist-lines whose outer Paris-sewn fabric manifestly covers nothing approaching outing-flannel weight beneath; and whose streamlined chassis are patently custom-built, not run off any routine assembly line.

You won’t find anything like that in David Embury.

Baker’s also got a great sense of humor, as well as a real sense of adventure and good storytelling. He meets the world with a sense of innocence and wonder, and a more than a little derring-do, like other notable travel/adventure writers working between the wars—Richard Halliburton, Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck, and Robert Ripley come to mind (all of whom Baker drank with, by the way–believe it or not!).

Some of the most exotic and unusual recipes in mixology can be found in Baker’s books; what are a couple of your favorites?

I bartend at the Pegu Club in New York, and this winter I got Audrey to add Baker’s fantastic Remember the Maine (from Havana, 1933) to the menu–it’s essentially a variation on the Manhattan, with Cherry Heering and a little Pernod. And Ted Haigh convinced me to try Baker’s Tequila por Mi Amante (Mexico City, 1937) …that’s made by adding a quart of halved strawberries to a pint of tequila, and letting it stand for at least 21 days. Ted was right–it’s amazingly good, and with strawberry season upon us, it might be time to give that one another shot [editor’s note: Tequila por Mi Amante will also be served at the Making Your Own Cocktail Ingredients session on Saturday, July 19]. I’ve recently had good results with the Queen Bee Cocktail (from the “famous club Circulo de Armas, in Buenos Aires“), from the South American Gentleman’s Companion:

  • 2 oz best apple brandy possible
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp strained honey
  • 2 tsp white Orange Curaçao
  • Curl orange peel

Stir well in shaker without ice, to dissolve honey; then shake hard with big ice and strain into chilled stemmed cocktail glass. Twist curl of orange peel over the finished drink, but do not drop-in glass…Vary honey and sour to suit your taste.

Baker’s recipes can also be a bit odd; what ones have you tried fall into that “I guess you had to be there” category?

This is so true, and even Baker admits it at times. In the recipe for the Eagle’s Dream, for instance, Baker shakes gin, lemon, sugar, and an egg white together, pours it in a glass, and then: “Carefully float-on 1/2 pony Garnier’s Crème de Rose Liqueur, and finally crown with enough Burgundy or Claret to lend a rich tint to the completed Dream. Go ahead–go ahead! Taste it. If you don’t like what eagles dream about, why, toss it down the drain. Nobody will raise an eyebrow.”

The first drink I mixed from Baker’s books is Firpo’s Balloon Cocktail from Gentleman’s Companion, one of the most disgusting things I can remember tasting. I don’t know why I ever mixed another recipe from that book, but I’m glad I did. With Baker, you should have no qualms about adjusting recipes—ingredients have changed, and so have tastes. It seems like a quarter of Baker’s recipes call for a big slug of 120-proof Pernod; try serving that at a bar today, and see how many you sell. Besides, Baker was a poet, not a chemist—I imagine many of the notes he took while traveling were pretty hard to read the morning after.

Can you give us an example of what attendees to your session may discover about Baker that doesn’t come through in his books?

Like many Baker fans, I couldn’t stop asking myself as I read the Gentleman’s Companion: “Who WAS this guy? How did he get to do all this traveling?” I started researching, and my curiosity grew into an obsession. I’ve spent the past few years researching Baker, digging through his books, magazine articles, and letters, and talking with his friends and family. I wrote a long biographical article on Baker for a great magazine called the Oxford American, to be published this June, and my presentation will cover a lot of the same ground. I’ll show attendees who Baker really was–from his youth in rural Florida to his life as a struggling writer in Manhattan to his glory days aboard the SS Resolute. If his recipes are a collection of colorful dots, I’ll try to connect them, with photos, anecdotes, and lots and lots of cocktails. I’m also working with Martin Doudoroff to put together a little booklet that will have some great info for hardcore Baker fans–an index of his books (compiled by Martin), plus a timeline and bibliography.

The Gentleman’s Companion: The Life and Times of Charles H. Baker, Jr. takes place Sunday, July 20 at 11:00 am at the Hotel Monteleone (schedule subject to change). Tickets may be purchased here.

Tags: ,