On a recent afternoon in Brooklyn, I sat with St. John Frizell, the owner of a new bar called Fort Defiance, and looked over some artifacts from the 1930s—cruise itineraries listing ports of call, magazine travel stories, a brochure titled “Gourmet Guide to Good Living in South America.” People serious about cocktails are often afflicted with one quaint obsession or another, possibly involving vintage shakers or antique bitters. Frizell’s obsession is with a writer named Charles H. Baker Jr., now seldom read, who was born in 1895. Each item on the table was associated with Baker and his global travels, which he always undertook for purposes of research.
Baker was a bon vivant who wrote about food and cocktails for Esquire, Gourmet, and Town & Country. Today, he is best remembered for writing The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or, Around the World With Jigger, Beaker and Flask, in 1939. It remains a tour de force. Flipping through its pages is like stepping into a dusky hunting club where the trophy mounts are cocktails such as the Sahara Glowing Heart and La Zaragozana’s Ne Plus Ultra, and where Baker sits in his cracked leather chair, recounting the story behind each. (Of a cocktail called Between the Sheets, he wrote, “We ran into it one dank day of sleet and rain in early January, just after the first Arab-Jewish riots which started with a murder of a poor old man stoned to death in a Haifa melon patch, between halves of a soccer match.”)