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19 Nov 2018

On Cocktails: Let's Raise a Toast to the Great Charles H. Baker and the Other Cocktail-Writing Greats

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A version of the Mexican "Firing Squad" special. A version of the Mexican "Firing Squad" special. Kevin Carlow

All those we list cannot please every reader, naturally … anisette, kümmel, tequila, Hawai’ian okolehao—all have their enemies and champions. No, the best we can hope to do is thumb over our battered field book, our odd scrawled-upon bar chits, menus and scraps of notes from bygone days, and construct therefrom a sequence of drinks which for this reason or that, stand out in memory beyond their fellows.

—Charles H. Baker

I’ve often mentioned the influence that certain books have had on me throughout my awakening as a craft bartender and drink writer. Without them, I would still be fumbling along, trying to balance drinks by seeing how many lemon wedges and sugar packets made the perfect lemon drop.

I know I stand on the shoulders of giants—some still writing, and others long passed. I have many bartending and culinary books on my shelf, and between my second or third copy of Imbibe! and my dog-eared paperback of Kitchen Confidential is a slim hardcover of Jigger, Beaker, and Glass; Drinking Around the World by Charles H. Baker.

There are bar books, and then there is The Gentleman’s Companion, as the aforementioned book by Baker was originally known. Baker (1895-1987) wasn’t a professional bartender; he was more like one of the well-traveled cocktail nerds we get at the bar from time to time. I have heard him referred to as the original cocktail blogger, which is pretty spot-on, except it ignores that he wrote for Esquire and other publications professionally from time to time.

His modus operandi was to go to a far-flung locale, have a drink—be it at an expedition base camp or a colonial hotel or wherever—and try to re-create both the cocktail and the moment. This is a 1930s version of a blogger, discussing which Calcutta hotels are better for the epicurean, and which drinks are appropriate for what prep-school alumni gathering—a blogger who sounds variously like Sax Rohmer, an elated Frasier Crane and a wistful C. Montgomery Burns. There is a good deal of humor in his grandiloquence, however, and thankfully not as many cringy racist and chauvinistic turns of phrase as you might imagine in a book of foreign travel from 90 years ago. He is engaged with his subjects, and happily gives credit to a Tagalog-speaking bartender in Manila as quickly as a British naval commander for a good drink.

Mostly, it’s his passion for travel, cocktails and comradery that make this book such a unique read. No drink goes without some background of where it came from and who, if known, created it. Also, the drinks are pretty well-constructed for a fellow who was trying to piece drunken episodes back together. Still, I usually tweak the recipes a bit to make them more suitable to the modern palate.

If this introduction wasn’t reason enough to look into a copy for your favorite cocktail nerd’s collection, let me share with you a few interesting recipes from its pages. The parentheses are my own, and recipes are abridged for space. Many are worth a mention for the name alone.


TURF COCKTAIL NO. II

(Baker relates an outing at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay from February 1931 to preface the recipe.)

We had won all of 67 rupees on this gold-cup, 23,000-rupees race, and were feeling very horsy and turfy, and tired of the “chotapegs”—just plain Scotch and not-too-cold soda, without ice of the last few days—and were open to suggestions.

  • One jigger (1 ounces) of dry gin
  • One pony (1 ounce) French (dry) vermouth
  • 1 teaspoon of absinthe
  • 1 teaspoon of maraschino
  • Dash of orange bitters

Stir like a martini and serve in a Manhattan glass, ungarnished.


THE WAXMAN SPECIAL COCKTAIL

(Baker tried this cocktail, named after an associate editor at Cosmopolitan, in New York, then encounters it at a bar in Palm Beach, Fla., much to his surprise. I am known to make this one on request.)

  • 1 pony old tom gin
  • 1 pony Italian (sweet) vermouth
  • 1 pony decent applejack (apple brandy if you can)

Shake with finely cracked ice (I would stir); strain into a Manhattan glass; float a half-ounce of yellow chartreuse on top.


MEXICAN “FIRING SQUAD” SPECIAL

(During a visit to Mexico City in 1937, Baker and friends find themselves bored with their highbrow guides and head to the Ill-famed La Cucaracha bar.)

And finally on one occasion we broke off by ourself (sic), sought out this bar—where an aristocratic native oughtn’t to be seen!—ordered things in our own way.

  • Two jiggers of tequila
  • Juice of two limes
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons of grenadine, or plain gomme syrup (use a quality, preferably homemade grenadine)
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Use a tall Collins glass with shaved ice, garnished with a flag of orange slice, pineapple, and cherry. (I recommend making this into two drinks and shaking it a bit with crushed ice.)


TIGER’S MILK NO. 1

(Baker and associates in Peking, 1931.)

Yes, we coasted in through the break in the huge breath-taking battlements of the Tartar Wall, to the station of the Water Gate. We got that strange lift under the heart all men get when they step from the world we know straight back into the heart of a city dating for thousands of years.

  • 2 1/2 jiggers old brandy
  • 1-2 teaspoons of sugar or grenadine
  • 1/2 cup of heavy cream and 1/2 cup of milk

Shake with ice and strain into a goblet. (This was a particular favorite of Baker.)


Finally, for the morning after, Baker gives up a wide range of “Pick Me Up” cocktails, a common euphemism in those glory days when it was expected for one to have a tipple in the morning to shake the demons from the night before.

ILE de FRANCE SPECIAL

The field of the great gray Morning After is one which this same civilized mankind is trying to graduate from undiluted hair of the dog that bit him, to something less regurgitative.

Build in a champagne flute:

  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sugar
  • 1/2 pony (1/2 ounce) of cognac
  • Fill with very cold champagne
  • Top with a dash or two of yellow chartreuse

Now that’s a fine drink to get you through the holiday season if you ask me! Of course, you could also opt for the “Holland’s Razor” or the classic “Prairie Oyster,” but neither Baker nor I would recommend that.

If things go awry, Baker also offers steps to relieve a bloodshot eye, restore someone from fainting, “alleviate apparent death from toxic poisonings,” and even revive a man found hanging; this advice is adjacent to tips on pairing caviar and oysters and how to store and serve claret. It makes one wonder at the type of parties we missed out on being born in these less-cavalier times.

All of this can be found in a mere 200 pages, and re-reading it is making me want to deactivate my social media and simply write about my travels again.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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