Charles Baker’s The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book Or, Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask is probably the vintage drinks book—after the Savoy Cocktail Book and Jerry Thomas—that most fascinated everyone in the early days of the Cocktail Renaissance. This book, and its lesser-known, superior, and now, gorgeously reprinted sequel, South American Gentlemanʼs Companion: Being and Exotic Drinking Book or, Up & Down the Andes with Jigger, Beaker & Flask remains just as compelling today.
What makes these volumes compelling and unique is their purple prose, inspired by the stylings of Victorian adventure writer Richard Halliburton, which wraps each recipe in an exotic context of languorous, luxurious travel with interesting people, often by boat, to distant lands filled with more interesting people. Many of the drink names are alone compelling: the Maharaja’s Burra-Peg, the Pan American Clipper, the Holland Razor Blade, … Death in the Gulf Stream. In short, Baker’s writing makes the recipes seem far more interesting than they actually are.
The recipes are a mess to some degree or another. The lack of diligence on Baker’s part is palpable. To be fair, he was a writer, not a bartender, however he prefaces the recipes in The Gentleman’s Companion with
Measure accurately, and don’t be betrayed by that insidious temptation to pour with a ‘heavy jigger.’ It is undeniable hospitality to wish guests to get their ample share of spirits, but don’t force the amount. More drinks are spoiled through being too strong than being too weak.”
… and then he turns around offers up a drink like the Balaklava Special No. II:
Put 1 jigger of kümmel, 1/2 jigger each of absinthe, cognac, and kirschwasser, into a shaker. Add 1/2 tsp orgeat syrup and 1 to 1/2 tsp of thick cream. Shake briskly and serve in a tall stemmed cocktail glass.
You’re going to need a very large cocktail glass to hold that one, and then you’re going to regret wasting all that booze, because you’re certainly not going to drink it! This is a particularly gruesome example, but nearly all the recipes will require some adjustment on your part.
There are a couple great drinks, such as the Remember the Maine and the Alamagoozlum, and many intriguing ones, which makes them good enough to be included in Martin’s Index. The Balaklava Special No. II will not be one of them.
I’m specially aware in this case of my own aggressive editing, and I know that Baker is near and dear to some. As always, I am open to challenge: if I’ve omitted a recipe that you feel is worthy, don’t hesitate to let me know.
If you’d like to learn more about Charles Baker, the authority is St. John Frizell, writer and proprietor of Ft. Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Frizell wrote an outstanding article on Baker for the Oxford American which you can read here. Highly recommended.