Characters: St. John Frizell - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Characters: St. John Frizell

“Watch this one when out under the moon in a desert overnight camp, riding camels out across the vast dunes, or strolling in the moonlight around the Sphinx with some congenial young woman companion.” The moonlight; the desert; the Sphinx and a congenial companion: such was the cast of characters in a typical passage by the mid-20th-century journalist Charles H. Baker Jr.

The “this one” Baker mentions is a mixture of gin, absinthe and apricot brandy, dubbed the Sahara Glowing Heart Cocktail, one of more than 250 drinks detailed in his 1939 book, The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book, or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask. Baker’s book has become an essential text for today’s cocktail devotees, but perhaps no one has shown more devotion to Baker’s legacy—or has worked harder to evangelize Baker’s significance—than St. John Frizell, a writer-turned-bartender and owner of Fort Defiance, an acclaimed bar and restaurant in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood.

Frizell’s enthusiasm for Baker isn’t hard to fathom. Baker was a journalist and professional man of leisure who thrice circumnavigated the globe during the waning years of colonialism, and shared meals, drinks and sundry exploits with companions including Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and legendary adventurers such as Frank Buck and Richard Halliburton. Baker’s lingering influence can be seen at Heaven’s Dog in San Francisco, where his drinks have long been menu mainstays, and in the popularity of his absinthe-laced Remember the Maine (which many credit Frizell with reviving) and pineapple-and rum-based Hotel Nacional Special on classic-cocktail menus across the country.

But Frizell takes his Bakerphilia to another level, citing the writer as an influence not only on his cocktails, but on his career and overall approach to life—prompting him to travel to exotic locales, seize opportunities for adventure and eventually step behind the bar. Frizell first encountered The Gentleman’s Companion in 2000, when he received it as a gift; Baker’s tales of global adventure and tongue-in-cheek faux-Victorian style captivated him from the start. “I was fascinated by the book,” says Frizell. “The questions to me were: Who was this guy, how did he get to do all these things—and how do I get that kind of life?” With a gregarious demeanor, an easy conversational style and a bon vivant’s appetite for life, Frizell was well-suited to follow Baker’s path.

As Frizell wrote in a 2008 biographical essay for Oxford American, “Baker traveled incessantly in search of unusual specimens [and] brought his quarry home scribbled on the backs of bar napkins.” Frizell believes that Baker offers today’s adventurous drinkers not only a remarkable list of recipes to explore, but also a big picture, deftly rendered, of the people and places involved in their creation.

“As opposed to heroes of the bar world who are great bartenders or great recipe developers, Baker was an honest-to-god great writer,” says Frizell. “His books aren’t straight recipes or straight travelogues—they’re written in a style that combines the two. He wasn’t just writing about drinks and meals—he wrote about what they meant to him and his life.”

At the time Frizell discovered Baker, he had just moved from New Orleans—where he’d worked in the restaurant industry—to New York, where he was hired as a copywriter for Bon Appétit, adding to a list of curious careers that included decorative painting, art reproduction and cabinet-making. But his early forays into Baker’s background were quickly stymied. Aside from his long-out-of-print books, there was little to be found about the actual man.

After chatting in online forums with others familiar with Baker’s work (Frizell invited one early acquaintance, Imbibe columnist David Wondrich, to his apartment to experiment with Baker’s recipes), Frizell turned to Margaria Fichtner, a Miami Herald staff writer who wrote Baker’s obituary after his death in 1987, and remembered him as local legend during his later years in southern Florida. Fichtner led Frizell to Baker’s daughter, Pamela Johnson. “Once I met her, the floodgates opened,” he says. “I realized that not only was he a really interesting guy, but he was a great person—she has very fond memories of her father. Then, I wanted to not only find out more about Baker, but to do him justice.”

For Frizell, doing Baker justice meant making changes in his own life. In 2006, Frizell left his magazine job in New York and headed for South America, beginning a five-month-long trip that included many of Baker’s stops from his years researching The South American Gentleman’s Companion, first published in 1951. By retracing Baker’s route, Frizell hoped to not only gain a better insight into the writer’s life, but to come away with his own memorable experiences of life in South America. Sipping Pisco Sours and chicha and taking notes along the way, Frizell traveled from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, across Bolivia to La Paz, headed overland through Peru to Cuzco and Lima, and eventually passed through Bogotá and Cartagena before returning to New York.

Though he continued to write professionally, Frizell realized upon his return to New York that the world of bars and restaurants was beckoning. Before his trip to South America, he had been active in New York’s rapidly developing cocktail scene—even hosting cocktail competitions in his apartment—but his intensive study of Baker inspired him to turn to that world professionally once he returned. He worked for a year at bars and restaurants in Red Hook, including The Good Fork and Bait and Tackle, then landed a bartending job at Pegu Club, Audrey Saunders’ pioneering Manhattan cocktail bar that included Baker’s Jimmy Roosevelt—an indulgent mixture of Cognac, Champagne and Chartreuse—on its opening menu.

Eventually, however, Frizell saw a need for a certain type of café and bar in his Red Hook neighborhood, one that would address the day-to-day needs of residents, whether they were seeking a good cup of coffee in the morning or a place to gather with friends for cocktails in the evening. “This was inspired in large part by my travels in South America and Europe, in places like Buenos Aires where the café culture is very strong,” he says.

Named for an American fort built during the Revolutionary War, Fort Defiance opened in June 2009 with a dose of Baker influence in its cocktail menu—which regularly features drinks drawn from Baker’s books, such as the Pimm’s Cup-like Colonial Cooler—and an identity that seemed instantly at home in the Red Hook neighborhood. But in 2012, the area was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Fort Defiance suffered major damage: much of the restaurant, including thousands of dollars’ worth of wine and spirits, was submerged under floodwater. While dedicating himself to reopening the restaurant, Frizell also responded to the hurricane by celebrating the neighborhood’s survival and spirit of recovery. He became active in the Restore Red Hook movement and took part in efforts to rebuild storm-damaged businesses.

Today, Frizell’s time is still mostly devoted to Fort Defiance, overseeing a kitchen and a bar that continues to serve Baker-derived favorites, along with less-familiar classics, such as the rum and scotch-based Quarter Deck from Trader Vic’s 1947 cocktail guide, and house originals, such as the Criterium, made with the Milanese rhubarb liqueur Rabarbaro Zucca. And he continues to preach the Baker gospel at every opportunity. In July, he led a seminar on the Latin American drinks from Baker’s books at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, and he’s writing the introduction for a reprint of the drinks volume of The South American Gentleman’s Companion, to be published by Cocktail Kingdom in early 2014.

Cocktail Kingdom publisher, historian and Fort Defiance regular Greg Boehm says Frizell’s enthusiasm for Baker has significance even for those without the shared interest. “Baker explored the world, and St. John has been amazing at adding a lot of that romance back to the cocktail,” Boehm says. “He demonstrates that it’s possible to balance taking what you’re doing seriously, but not so seriously that it takes away from the fun.”

Though his interest in Baker developed more than a decade ago, Frizell says the larger-than-life yet once-obscure chronicler of unusual drinks imbibed by fascinating people continues to influence him today. He explains that Baker thrived in the settings of small gatherings and intimate restaurants; by opening Fort Defiance, and by continuing to cultivate his friendships along the narrow border that separates the literary and culinary arts, Frizell is taking Baker’s template for the good life and applying it to his own. “Asking yourself, ‘What would Charles H. Baker do?’ is a good way to go through life,” Frizell says.

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend