The Cocktail Staycation

Paul Blow

My wife and I try to take a vacation once a year (in the past we’ve been to Mexico, Vietnam, and Europe), but this year we’re staying put, enjoying the home life. Thankfully, we can still travel in spirit—with spirits. Drinking is the best cure for the stay-at-home blues. And for armchair travel through the land of cocktails, Charles H. Baker Jr. is the ideal guide. An early-20th-century bon vivant, traveler, and author of Jigger, Beaker & Glass: Drinking Around the World, Baker is hot right now among cocktail geeks.

During San Francisco’s recent Cocktail Week, Erik Adkins, general manager at Heaven’s Dog, gave a lecture about Baker. Adkins is such a Baker-phile that he has devoted his entire cocktail menu to Baker’s often exotically named drinks, including such numbers as Remember the Maine and Tiger’s Milk No. II. “I love not only Baker’s cocktails,” Adkins said, “but the romance of travel and the appetite for the exotic. Every drink is a journey.”

Baker didn’t really invent drinks; he collected them—as well as the spirit of the moment in which they were consumed. Baker’s drink writing is really a collection of travel stories, punctuated with recipes. His writing is florid, to say the least, but is always completely invested in the place and in the giddiness of consumption. Take the prelude to the recipe for Champagne Cocktail No. I, a.k.a. the Maharajah’s Burra-Peg: “... and here in this amazing town in Rajputana … India’s most marvelous deserted city … we would sit on the rooftop of his bungalow, and while the sun set through the sherry-brown dust cloud that broods over Central India throughout the dry season … we would sip various tall things, including—on Washington’s birthday, of course—a quartet of Champagne Burra-Pegs.”

Baker’s writing never fails to get me in the mood for drinking. But be cautioned: Some of the recipes require adaptation, as quantities and sweetness levels often seem to be off. For instance, Adkins related his own experience of re-creating the Maharajah’s Burra-Peg, which involved a whopping 4 ounces of Cognac and about 10 ounces (two standard glasses) of Champagne. The size of the drink caused him to wonder how one could remember anything, much less a recipe. So feel free to edit and adapt as you see fit. The spirit and stories behind the drinks are more important than the given proportions.

One recent Sunday evening, as the sun tumbled down outside my own window, I found myself yearning to pack my trunk and hop on a ship. Instead, I picked up Baker and tried a ’Round the World Cocktail: “1 ounce green Crème de Menthe, ditto dry gin, and 2 ounces fresh pineapple juice. Serve very cold indeed, please.” It wasn’t the same as a berth on a steamer to India, but was not half bad at all.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.