The World on the Rocks

For fans of the legendary cocktail writer Charles H. Baker, the contents of a drink are less compelling than the story behind it.

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.”)

Frizell discovered Baker eight years ago, when he received The Gentleman’s Companion as a gift. He was captivated by Baker’s prose, which at times reads as if written by a 19th-century explorer hopelessly lost in the thickets of modern life. Soon after, Frizell quit his job as a marketing writer at Bon Appétit and set off with his wife on an eight-month tramp through South America and China, seeking out clubs and bars that Baker had visited seven decades earlier.

The pair did not meet with unalloyed success. In Bolivia, for instance, they made their way through the Andes to a rickety mountaineering clubhouse hanging off a cliff at 15,000 feet, where Baker once drank a Hot Coffee Grog. “They didn’t have any cocktails, they didn’t have any glasses, they didn’t have any coffee,” Frizell told me. But he and his wife found something even more elusive: a palpable sense of the rakish adventurousness that prevailed between the world wars. “They had a photograph of the founders of the club from the 1930s, posing with a snowman,” Frizell said. “The men were in ties, the women in ski dresses, and it looked like they were having a blast. The world was their oyster.”

In that spirit, Frizell opened Fort Defiance in the Red Hook neighborhood last summer. Despite some Baker ephemera on the walls, it’s not a theme bar; Baker is given a respectful nod rather than a Brooklyn wink. In fact, Fort Defiance seems the antithesis of those retro cocktail lounges that attract blog-obsessed hipsters who, like Bedouins, roll up their tents and leave when something new glints on the horizon. “You ever see Zorba the Greek?” Frizell asked. “There’s a scene in the beginning where the main character meets Zorba in a café, waiting for a ferry. It’s the ultimate café. A good bar scene always has a mix from all different walks of life. If everyone’s drinking the same Kool-Aid, it’s really boring.”

The Baker cocktails on the Fort Defiance menu include three worthy of extra attention: the Mexican Firing Squad (a tequila drink from Mexico City), the Colonial Cooler (a gin-and-vermouth concoction from “British North Borneo”), and the Barbados Buck, which, Baker wrote, he discovered one day after “lying naked on a sugarwhite beach, talking about Gilbert & Sullivan.”

I’m a bit disappointed Frizell isn’t serving any of Baker’s nearly unpotable drinks, of which there are quite a few. (One calls for gin, sweet vermouth, pineapple syrup, grenadine, lemon juice, heavy cream, and an egg white.) I suspect Baker included these in his collections by sly design—true adventure, after all, means occasionally encountering a churlish viper or the chance monsoon before sipping a julep on the veranda of a Tahitian vanilla plantation. Cocktails shouldn’t always strive for perfection in a glass. Sometimes they should be way markers on the route to someplace more interesting.