SIN-jin. That’s how you pronounce St. John Frizell’s first name, and he appreciates when people get it right. “For 45 years now, my name has been a highly accurate asshole detector,” says Frizell, the owner of Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance. “If I meet someone who has excessive, intentional trouble with my name, or refuses to use it, I know I won’t be friends with that person. It’s been that way since childhood.”
The New Jersey native’s parents grew to love the name “St. John” via the late theater luminary St. John Terrell, an icon of the flower-power movement of their generation. They passed this affinity for American counterculture onto their son, whose journey toward a bar industry career began with a self-guided immersion in the lounge music and swing dancing revivals of the 1990s.
The ah-ha moment for Frizell came in 1999, when he relocated from New Orleans to New York to pursue magazine jobs. A friend lent him a copy of Charles H. Baker’s The Gentleman’s Companion, a colorful and immersive chronicle of the dashing Esquire correspondent’s cocktail-fueled world travels. “That was it—I had found my calling,” he says. Following Baker’s lead, Frizell refocused his writing on cocktail culture, logging hands-on experience under Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club ahead of opening Fort Defiance in 2009. His current project is a revival of Gage & Tollner, a 140-year-old chophouse in Downtown Brooklyn.
So what does St. John do when he’s not hanging out at his bar or working to open a new one? Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his backup plan in life, his affinity for Dungeons & Dragons and his favorite wine bar. —Drew Lazor
Proprietor of Fort Defiance and partner in Gage & Tollner Hospitality LLC. I’m reopening Gage & Tollner, a historic chophouse in Downtown Brooklyn, with Ben Schneider and chef Sohui Kim, of the Good Fork and Insa. We’re looking for small investors.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Charles H. Baker, Jr., obviously. If that doesn’t work, M. F. K. Fisher.
Best thing you ever drank:
A drink is only as enjoyable as the people you share it with—I believe that. I’d rather have a bad drink with good people than the reverse. That said: I went to Hans Reisetbauer’s distillery with a friend of his outside of Linz, Austria. I tasted through his entire line of eau de vie before noon, including a lot of stuff that’s not for sale. It was mind-blowing. Then I sat down with his staff for lunch, prepared by his wife, Elfriede—a pork neck stew with Austrian-style dumplings. There was cider from the orchards outside, and Hans busted out a couple bottles of vintage Nuits-Saint-Georges. I spent the rest of the day in a blissful stupor.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Years ago, my ex and I spent a couple days riding horses around Incan ruins in Ollantaytambo, Peru. We tipped our teenage guide well, and as a gesture of thanks, he took us to a chicha house, where they were making home-brewed corn beer. He bought us a round of Big Gulp-sized strawberry chicha. Both my ex and his girlfriend played demure and took little sips, but I felt like I would dishonor the kid if I didn’t drink it and like it. So I did. It was aggressively foaming in the container, like it was trying to get out. It did the same thing in my stomach. It was the temperature and texture of old lady spit, which made sense, because a few yards away from us, some old ladies were chewing up mouthfuls of corn and spitting them into a vat of corn slurry, which is one way you can kick-start fermentation—with human saliva. You learn a lot when you travel.
First time you ever got drunk:
I didn’t get drunk till college. I went to Tulane in New Orleans, where, if you were 18, it was legal to drink. It may have been legally mandated.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Junco Partner by James Booker.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I’ve just started playing Dungeons & Dragons again, DM-ing an adventure for my son Chester and his friends. They’re nine.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.” That’s the beginning of Handbook of Epictetus, a kind of self-help book that was written almost 2,000 years ago. When I read that first page for the first time, I literally put the book down and said out loud: “WHY DIDN’T ANYBODY TELL ME THAT?!”
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
One of the first Baker cocktails I tried to make as a fledgling home mixologist was “Firpo’s Balloon Cocktail, the Calcutta Classic.” I was so excited. The recipe is equal parts rye, vermouth and absinthe, shaken with bitters and egg white. I took one sip and I thought, this does not bode well.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Cooking, or reading about food. It’s funny—I love restaurants and restaurant culture but I prefer cooking and eating at home to just about anything else.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
I think Red Bull and vodka is really weird, but people ask for that all the time.
Your favorite bar, and why:
I have had many favorite bars. I was a three-times-a-week regular at Jimmy’s Corner in Manhattan for six years. I took a trip to Nashville a couple years ago and still dream about Robert’s Western World. But Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook is still tops — I can’t imagine what my life in New York would look like without it.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
A little pasta I cooked up last night based on a Melissa Clark recipe from the Times, with fresh corn, green onions, little tomatoes and basil. I made it for my girlfriend Kat. She’s good company.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
In a dive bar?
Miller High Life and rye whiskey.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Don’t drink too much. Excepting that: BC® Powder, a little mix of caffeine and aspirin that comes in little glassine wrappers and looks like hard drugs. And I hate to say it, but fresh air and exercise, if you can stand it, if for no other reason than it reminds you why you don’t drink too much anymore.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
A lack of straightforward options. If you’re running a cocktail bar, give me something on the menu I can get a handle on—something that resembles a traditional cocktail. I’ll order that, and if it’s good, I’ll order something else.
The last text message you sent:
“Can I FaceTime with Chester?” My boy Chester was with his mother, and it’s his first day of school.