My column in the November issue of The Atlantic is about Charles H. Baker Jr., author of A Gentleman's Companion; Being an Exotic Drinking Book or, Around the World With Jigger, Beaker, and Flask, who is famous in certain circles for the spectacular impotability of many of his drinks. For the story, I spent an afternoon with St. John Frizell, who with his wife traced Baker’s travel through parts of South America and Asia, looking for the places where Baker drank. (The Atlantic story is online here.) The story concluded that bad drinks serve a purpose — in short, they make you appreciate the good drinks.
One of the drinks that Frizell mentioned to me in the course of our long discussion was Firpo’s Balloon Cocktail. “It was the first one I tried,” Frizell said, "and the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had. Why I went back for more I don’t know.” It was from a bar called Firpo’s, described by Baker as “Calcutta’s one smart night spot,” and the drink was so named “because the fifth one consumed is guaranteed to set us bobbing about up under the ceiling.”
The recipe calls for equal parts rye, absinthe, sweet vermouth and two dashes of orange bitters, then shaken well with a bit of egg white.
I like rye, absinthe, and vermouth. How bad could that be?
Curious, I mixed up one last night using R1 rye, Ted Breaux’s Nouvelle Orleans absinthe, Boissiere vermouth, and Angostura orange bitters.
And…. it was, as Frizell promised, nasty. The color was a sort of institutional grey. The taste? All muddled and confused. The thought process of former president George Bush was once described as “call-waiting thinking,” with one thought constantly interrupted by another incoming one. Firpo’s Balloon Cocktail is a call-waiting cocktail, with one taste constantly interrupted by another. I did like getting the brief call from the absinthe. But I did not like wasting that fine absinthe by pouring everything down the drain after a couple of sips.
“This is another one to watch cannily lest our pedal extremities fold up at some totally inappropriate moment,” Baker wrote. He was wrong on this — he assumed his reader might drink one or more of these, which they won’t. Never mind five.
But I’ll give it this — it made my next cocktail, a Scofflaw, taste all the better.
Baker's book is available here. St. John Frizell's bar, Fort Defiance, opened last summer in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Frizell wrote a great story on Baker and his quest last year in the Oxford American.