Masters of Mixology: Charles H. Baker

New York bartender St. John Frizell explores the life and adventures of famed cocktail-book author Charles H. Baker

In the spring of 1926, Charles H. Baker, Jr., was stranded on a lifeboat in the Sulu Sea off the coast of North Borneo. Before his motor died, he had been on an excursion to the city of Sandakan — a three-hour tour, you might say — from the SS Resolute, a round-the-world steamer that had brought him from New York and was now anchored 14 miles offshore.

Across the still, sparkling water, a small boat "with a sail like a striped butterfly" approached; its captain was wearing nothing but a "G-string and a headdress."

"Somehow we managed to convey the idea that we were not wallowing there on a glassy sea with a molten brass sun striking like a sword across our necks, because we wanted to," Baker wrote in his classic two-volume The Gentleman’s Companion, first published in 1939. When finally pulled into port by a friendly tug, Baker headed straight to a bar and enjoyed The Colonial Cooler.

Adventure stories that end in cocktail recipes — these make up the bulk of Baker’s work, most notably his two masterpieces, The South American Gentleman’s Companion, published in 1951, and the aforementioned The Gentleman’s Companion, which I received as a gift in 2000.

As I returned again and again to Baker’s breathtakingly florid prose on those deckle-edged pages, I felt the world spread out like an Indiana Jones treasure map, my route marked in red, leading to exotic food and drinks.

Baker, born on Christmas Day in 1895, wasn’t always a globetrotting adventurer/poet laureate of the cocktail. He spent much of his 20s selling industrial abrasives in Worcester, Mass., tried his hand at interior decorating in his 30s and didn’t publish his first book until he was 43. In other words, there’s still time to jump on that round-the-world steamer.

So this year, when making decisions, it might be useful to ask yourself, as I once did: What would Charles H. Baker do?

Click here for The Colonial Cooler recipe.

— St. John Frizell,