In the summer of 2000, a friend handed me a book that would change my life. Its russet linen binding was frayed at the edges, and the gold lettering on its spine was so tarnished I could barely read the title:
It was a book of cocktail recipes, but unlike any that I had ever seen. Though the publication date was 19461, everything about the book pointed to a much earlier age—the speckled paper, the Victorian serifed font with its gratuitous use of small caps and italics, and language that, at first glance, seemed positively florid. The title for one randomly selected recipe read: “THE VLADIVOSTOK VIRGIN, Being a Risky Little Heart-warmer from out Frozen Siberia, Disclosed by a Late Friend once Stationed there (only our Creator knows why!) with United States Troops, after what We Have Quaintly Come to Term as 'World War I.' "
And Vladivostok was just the beginning—flipping through the pages, I saw references to every city from Honolulu to Cairo, from Juhu Beach to Colón, from Athens to Sandakan. The name of the author— Charles H. Baker, Jr.—meant nothing to me. I asked myself: Who was this guy?
At that time, I was 27 years old and new to New York, where I had moved from New Orleans the year before to seek my fortune. Among my friends, I distinguished myself somewhat by having a keen interest in good drinks, their history and how to make them. My friend Dan had found The Gentleman’s Companion in a secondhand store up in Cooperstown, and had bought it for himself. When he showed it to me, I asked if I could borrow it. He never got it back.
It’s not at all surprising to me that so many of my friends and colleagues in the cocktail business can remember precisely when and how they first cracked the spine of their own Gentleman’s Companion. For some it was a gift from a mentor or a family heirloom; for others, a stumbled-upon treasure.
As for me, I fell in love. As fans of Mr. Baker know, the appeal of the globe-trotting Gentleman’s Companion books—both the original and the South American Gentleman’s Companion—is not entirely in their recipes, but in the stories that accompany them. Baker understood that what you drink is not as important as who you drink it with, where, and how, and he does a better job conveying that context than perhaps any other mixographer in history. When he describes a drink, you want to be there with him—whether drinking hot Cossack Punch in Shanghai “one drizzly afternoon after the races, a house in the French Concession whose host again it is not necessary to mention” or mulled Burgundy in “a Kashmiri mountain hut late in September ... with the perfume of ½ doz plump grouse sizzling before the coals on a rock slab hearth, the air outside as clear as wine.”
It doesn’t hurt that he was collecting his recipes at arguably the best time in the history of the world to be an American adventurer abroad. It was the lull between world wars in the 1920s and 1930s, when Richard Halliburton was flying a Stearman C-B3 across the Sahara, or swimming the Panama Canal to fill the pages of Royal Road to Romance; when Robert Ripley was trekking in Asia, collecting stories of headhunters and witch doctors; when Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck was chasing pythons and tigers in the jungles of Malaya, and Henry Miller was in Paris, hunting—well, we all know what Henry Miller was hunting in Paris. The Gentleman’s Companion is Baker’s trophy room, its recipes his antlers on display—but for Baker, the stories of the hunt were always more important than the quarry.
As my interest grew, I struggled to put the anecdotes in the Companion in chronological order, to establish a timeline of Baker’s life. But it was impossible without more information—like piecing together a distant relative’s life from a pile of postcards found in the drawer of a bedside table. After doing a little fruitless digging, I couldn’t understand why there was apparently nothing much written about this great writer’s life other than a short article by Margaria Fichtner published in the Miami Herald in 2002. At the time, I was working at Bon Appétit magazine, in a corner office on the 15th floor of the Conde Nast Building in Times Square, and during my lunch hour I would slip over to the reading room of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to continue my research. Under that coffined ceiling, with murals of clouds at sunset, my interest bloomed into obsession. In its archives, I found crumbs that led me further down the trail—columns Baker wrote for Town & Country, Esquire and Gourmet; reviews of his Companions; and, very rarely, a short biographical sketch or a photo. The first time I saw a picture of the man was in a yellowed issue of Esquire from 1955. In the portrait, a dashing sixty-year-old Baker gazes into the distance, looking very much like John Barrymore in Grand Hotel, a slight smile under his Errol Flynn mustache.
After a few years of this bushwhacking, I had filled numerous composition books with notes and binders with Xeroxed clippings; my Bakerania earned its own shelf in the cramped office of my garden apartment in Brooklyn. I collected mementos of the three cruises he took around the world on United States Lines steamships, and cross-referenced their maps and schedules with Baker’s own recollections of his ports of call. I beefed up my home bar so I could try all the recipes, haranguing the local liquor store to stock oddities like Anis del Mono, kümmel and Guyanese rum. It wasn’t enough. I needed some first hand experience. To this day, I don’t know how I convinced my wife that it was a good idea to walk away from my career in publishing, with its 401(k), excellent health insurance and promising future, and get on a plane to South America2, but that’s what we did.
I imagine that Baker’s decision to travel to South America in 1946 was an easier one. He’d had a good year. His original Gentleman’s Companion had just been reprinted by Crown, and was selling well enough to go through multiple printings (the original run by Derrydale Press was limited to 1250 copies). His only published novel, Blood of the Lamb, had also just come out from Rinehart & Company, and received some positive reviews. He was writing a food-and-drink column for Town & Country called “Fare Thee Well,” but to be honest, he didn’t have to work. In 1933, he married Pauline Paulsen, the beautiful heiress he met on board the SS Resolute on his last round-the-world voyage, and the two settled just south of Miami, Florida, at Java Head, the manorial estate they built in Coconut Grove.
A few miles up the road from Java Head was Dinner Key, which in the 1930s was the home base for the seaplanes of Pan-American World Airways, and the main hub for air travel between North and South America. At the time, Pan-Am flight crews were famous for flying unreliable aircraft on barely tested routes through extreme weather conditions—for reference, see Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings—exactly the kind of sports with whom Baker liked to raise a glass. In 1946, or so he tells it in the introduction to The South American Gentleman’s Companion, Volume One, Baker received a visit from two Pan-Am executives who convinced him to let them fly him all over South America in search of good things to eat and drink. After all, the continent was relatively untouched by war, American tourists needed someplace to go, and here was a local with journalistic bona fides that could get Pan-Am the press they wanted. The trip was a junket, and a lavish one at that—to quote Baker, “when one of those hospitable Latins turns on the host act it puts our own fabled Southern brand of hospitality to shame, suh!”
Our trip to South America was not quite as lavish. We landed in Buenos Aires with a couple of rucksacks, one of which contained my two volumes of the Companion, which I bound together with a Velcro strap. We stayed for five months, traveling up and down the Andes, stopping at every Baker-approved address along our path. In truth, not much was left of the social clubs, hotel bars and nightclubs that Baker visited, but there were a few notable exceptions. I had impeccable pisco sours at the Lima Country Club; after obtaining the proper credentials for entry, I walked the bartender of the Buenos Aires English Club (which had conveniently been combined with the American Club and relocated to the seventh floor of an office tower) through a reasonable facsimile of an Old Salt Cocktail; and I sourced the ingredients for Señor Alurralde's Brandy Shrub, which I aged for the requisite week in a Nalgene bottle. Often when in a locale that Baker had written about, I would pull out my battered Companion while reciting to the bartender, in halting Spanish, the phrases I had practiced to explain myself—“Estoy siguiendo la ruta de un famoso periodista norteamericano,” etc.—which made about as much sense to them as it did to my family back home, or to my wife, for that matter.
When Baker returned to the States, he got right to work, introducing the pleasures of South American cuisine and cocktails to a wide American public with his 1947 columns in Gourmet and Town & Country, where many of the recipes and stories contained in the SAGC first appeared. Though The South American Gentleman’s Companion (published by Crown in 1951) never matched the commercial success of the 1939 Companion, it is filled with the signature Baker touches that make the original set so beloved. He introduces us to bizarre characters like Innocencio, the bartender at the Sucre Palace in La Paz, who "at unpredictable intervals...would shudder into life from his coca-leaf-chewing haze to concoct some weird unreal and fantastic little jigger child, most of which—after a wide-eyed exploratory taste—were hurled down-drain with sing-song falsetto mutterings." We witness our Pastor struggle with propriety when describing Maria Angelica Cortesse, "vivid, small, quick, with great dark flashing eyes, a small delicious body with thoughtful curves in all the right places, and a mind sharper than the cracker on a 16-dollar buggy whip. And who mixed the most lethal Double Dry Martinis this side of Paradise." And when Baker waxes rhapsodic about the effects of F. Garcia Bode's Maracaibo Champagne Punch, we understand all at once the true potential of the bartender's art:
The brandy content puts guests in a prompt good humor; feuding females actually beam on one another, tycoons unbend and remember when they made their first million; husbands forget the fretful pass of years, the petty-peckings, bills, taxes... even the waning hurly-burly of the marriage bed, and lead their astonished brides of yesteryear out [onto] the patio to sniff frangipani blossoms or to inhale the intoxicating swoon of night-blooming jasmine.
As for me, I never went back to that corner office on the 15th floor. In a way, I kept traveling, with Baker as my companion. My research continued in New York and led me to revered mixologist Audrey Saunders, whose passion for Baker at least equals mine, and who gave me my first cocktail bartending job at her inimitable Pegu Club in 2006. While in South America, I had decided that Baker was right. Near the beginning of Chapter 1 of The South American’s Gentleman’s Companion, Being an Exotic Cookery Book, he says:
the fixing of an exotic Latin American dish holds much of the same sense of imminent adventure that Columbus knew when he sailed west from Gibraltar. Just as it took imagination to get good Queen Isabella to hock her rocks, just as it took daring to head west into those unknown seas, just so the same spirit applies to the fixing of all the hand-picked receipts3 listed in this volume.
And it was in this spirit of high adventure that I opened my own restaurant, Fort Defiance, in 2009. If you come to visit you’ll see, in a glass case set into the wall, a black enamel cocktail shaker decorated with a finely painted red-and-gold rooster. Baker picked this up in Japan on his last round-the-world cruise, just after he met his wife Pauline. Their daughter Pamela gave it to me as a gift just after we opened.
Though Baker’s contributions to the food world are significant—he’s credited with introducing the word ceviche to the English language, for instance—it’s the cocktail world, that informal coterie of bartenders, booze writers and amateur mixologists—that would fully embrace him as their own. For these readers, and for all who mix the drinks herein, the quality of Baker’s recipes must be frankly addressed. Baker was not a scientist nor a technician, nor a journalist, nor ever a professional bartender. He was, and remains, the international poet laureate of the cocktail, and because of this we must grant him poetic license. Not every drink works right out of the box, but I encourage you to try them all. Sip each thoughtfully, and make adjustments according to your taste. Write your corrections in the margins in a careful hand, and don’t worry if some of your corrected recipe spills on the page while you write. And when you’ve worked through every one, maybe decades from now, I hope you take this book, its linen binding faded and frayed, its gold lettering tarnished with age, and give it to someone you love, who might be in need of a little inspiration.
1 I later learned that this was a reprint of the original 1939 edition subtitled Being an Exotic Drinking Book, or, Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask
2 In fact, I don’t know if I was successful. We have been happily separated since 2010.
3 Baker explains his use of “receipts” in his foreword to The South American Gentleman’s Companion: Being and Exotic Cookery Book, or, Up & Down the Andes with Knife, Fork & Spoon: “By….‘receipts’, we mean two things. First, a selected list of dishes which can be reproduced with raw materials buyable back home in the States. Second, a list which would not only appeal to our more conservative eating tastes, but which would not likely give our Notre-americano citizens a ‘turn’’’.
Excerpted with permission from Cocktail Kingdom