Serious Reads: The Gentleman's Companion Fan Club
Cocktail books, like cookbooks, tend to have a fairly short lifespan. While there are some on the shelf that are worn and stained from years of use, there are many others gathering dust, and that wind up in used bookstores and boxes at the Salvation Army after their relevance has waned and they no longer have anything tasty or novel to offer.
In the category of mixology books that are not only kept, but collected and even treasured, are the books by Charles H. Baker, Jr., a writer and bon vivant who penned two sets of globe-trotting books in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s that focused on food and drink: the two-volume Gentleman's Companion (1939), and a follow-up South American Gentleman's Companion (1951). As Camper English wrote in last weekend's San Francisco Chronicle, a growing number of bartenders are turning to Baker's books for inspiration for their cocktail menus.
While most recipes start out with simple tips and instructions, Baker had a winding faux-Victorian style when setting up his recipes, such as this introduction to the Carolina Plantation Bracer:
After dancing the night through, or possibly a gentleman's game of draw poker—nothing wild—until the wee sma' hours, our tide-water blade knifing his way about the selvages of Charleston's society was wise in his pick-me-ups. This suggestion from Bill Heyward, schoolmate of years back, given between boats one winter afternoon is something to note, lest we forget.
Brooklyn writer and bartender St. John Frizell, an ardent Baker devotee, recently wrote a short biography of Baker for Oxford American, and will soon open a café and bar, Fort Defiance, that will feature Baker's cocktails and display Baker paraphernalia. In San Francisco, the bar menu at Heaven's Dog is drawn heavily from Baker's work, and a soon-to-open watering hole in Portland, Oregon—Beaker & Flask—takes its name from the subhead of Baker's books. One of the cocktails in The Gentleman's Companion, the Remember the Maine, has become a standard at craft-cocktail bars, and others such as the Jimmy Roosevelt have popped up at bars such as Pegu Club in New York.
As Camper notes in his article, Baker's drinks suffer one burden: most of them aren't very good. But some are wonderful, and many others can be rescued with a little doctoring of the ingredients and proportions. I count myself a major Baker fan—in addition to featuring the Remember the Maine here at Serious Eats, along with drinks such as the Hotel Nacional Special and the Cora Middleton Cocktail on my own blog, The Cocktail Chronicles, I adapted the subhead of Baker's books for the subhead on my blog, and I interviewed Frizell about Baker last year for Blogging Tales of the Cocktail.
Camper writes, "Baker fans can sound a bit like science fiction conventioneers when they gather, trading quotes from the books and daydreaming about the settings." Are you a fellow traveler, or have you visited one of the bars that's featured Baker's drinks? Let us know.
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.