Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Gin Rickey

This summer tipple hails from D.C. 

Some people are born to fame; others achieve it, while celebrity is thrust upon a few. Among the latter is Col. Joe Rickey, of Missouri. But instead of feeling proud of the fact that he has given his name to a popular tipple Col. Rickey feels very much aggrieved. "Only a few years ago," he said recently, "I was Col. Rickey, of Missouri, the friend of senators, judges and statesmen and something of an authority on political matters and political movements.... But am I ever spoken of for those reasons? I fear not. No, I am known to fame as the author of the 'rickey,' and I have to be satisfied with that. There is one consolation in the fact that there are fashions in drinks. The present popularity of the Scotch high ball may possibly lose me my reputation and restore me my former fame. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished for.'

--"Not Proud of His Honors", The Wellsboro Gazette, July 26, 1901.

Sometimes you just want to say, “Fuck it.” Sometimes it is too much bother to shake or stir much. Sometimes simpler is better, and this month, when the heat is an oppressive beast that never gives quarter to cooling breezes, and the air conditioner is straining against the succession of 100 degree days, is one of those times in particular. Add in a measure of clothes’ soaking humidity, and it just seems like the time to pop open a can of crap macro beer for your evening constitutional.

But despair not. There are mixed drinks, rich in history, alive in the glass, refreshing and so easy to produce that you need not turn to the tepid offerings of the execrable Miller-Coors folks in order to quench your thirst and ease from your work day.

It is always best in these sorts of times to turn to drinks that arise from regions known for the sort of weather that has so bedeviled the bulk of America these last weeks. Washington D.C., a city built on a pestilent swamp, where summer days go beyond sultry and venture into insufferably moist, is one such place. And it is to the District’s tradition of lobbyists, politicians and late 19th Century boozehounds that we turn and find ourselves the supreme summer quencher with a stick of something in it, the humble and simple and delicious Rickey. It is a drink that anyone with access to strong spirits, limes, water that has been made bubbly and, crucially, ice, can produce in seconds.  It is the perfect antidote to what ails you of a summer heat wave.

A Lobbyist Walks into A Bar…

The Rickey is one of those rare drinks whose origins we can trace with alacrity, and the story is wrapped in politics and gambling and influence peddling, appropriate for a drink that arose from the power corridors of Washington D.C.

Colonel Joe Rickey, late of Missouri, was a man about town in the Washington of the late 1800s. He was a passionate and partisan Democrat who extended his influence beyond Missouri by stumping long and hard on behalf of Grover Cleveland in 1884 and 1892, and was appointed to the Military Organization Committee for Cleveland’s inaugural festivities.

In Washington he was a regular and enthusiastic patron of Shoomaker's Resort, known as Shoo’s, a dingy dive bar at 1331 E Street near the National Theatre, that despite its dust and cobwebs was known as a place where powerful types went to unwind. After arriving in the District and taking to regularly gracing the bar at Shoo’s, Rickey became a lobbyist, drinking with Senators and Congressman and Justices and doling out favors and wagering on the outcomes of elections. He is known to have lost handsomely betting Republican patrons on the outcome of the 1896 election, when Williams Jennings Bryan went down to William McKinley. But Rickey was not crucified upon a cross of gold for his losses. Rather the stakes were drinks, and Rickey apparently stood many rounds following the 1896 election.

The Almost Assuredly Accurate Story(s) of the Rickey as a Drink

The cocktail that bears Rickey’s name is a simple affair, born from what was Rickey’s regular morning eye opener: a shot of whiskey, some lump ice and Apollinaris sparkling mineral water. One story says that what we would basically call a whiskey soda came to be a Rickey on the morning John G. Carlisle won the election to be Speaker of the House. On that day in 1883, Rickey’s successful wager on Carlisle with a colleague from Philadelphia called for some celebration, and George Williamson, the bartender at Shoo’s, added the juice of half a lime and, as importantly, the spent shell of that lime to Rickey’s regular tipple to mark the occasion. The whiskey in question was most likely Shoo’s own house brand of rye, though other sources say Bourbon.

Another version goes that Williamson, in chatting with a stranger recently returned (or arrived) from the Caribbean, learned of the island custom of adding half a lime to rum, and the stranger asked the barman to substitute whiskey for the rum. The following morning, Williamson adapted this lime business into the Colonel’s morning brace-up, and Rickey found it to his liking.

In either case, we know that Williamson produced it at Shoomaker’s and that Rickey liked it and started drinking it. And, given Rickey’s influence in Shoo’s, other patrons started ordering, “One of those Rickey drinks,” and things went on from there.

The Dive Bar That Ran America

Rickey so loved Shoo’s that he eventually became a stakeholder in the joint, and later, upon the death of original owner William Shoomaker, he bought the place himself. Situated on a notorious length of E Street then known as Rum Row, it was a short distance from the halls of power and also around the corner from Newspaper Row, home to most of the national newspapers of the day. Politicians and newsman have a long and deserved reputation for loving drink and a symbiotic need for each other in order to survive. Shoo’s was the kind of place where these two worlds could mingle outside the prying eyes of civilians. Politicos could leak stories over drinks and reporters walk around the corner to the office to file stories.

Elbert Hubbard, who published a history of Shoo’s in 1909, wrote of the place:

The men who come here mostly live in palaces. They are rich and powerful. They bear big burdens. Here they relax and are free from the vigils of butler, wife, daughters or decent neighbors. It is democracy carried to the limit....Here men get freedom from the tyranny of things. Nothing matters. The bartenders are your neighbors, the proprietor your long-familiar friend, the patrons your partners.

One would think that a place catering to elites would be gilded to the limits and offer impeccable service and carry the air of a refined gentleman’s club. One could not be more wrong—its other nickname was “Cobweb Hall,” and as Hubbard described it:

Shoomaker’s is a grocery — a wet grocery — where no groceries have been sold since Lee surrendered to Grant.  There are boxes piled to the ceiling in this grocery, and you make your way thru a narrow passage, past barrels and kegs, and find yourself in the back room, vulgarly called the barroom.  Outside, the place is guiltless of paint, and the architecture is an eyesore to the surrounding neighbors...The shabbiness of the place is its asset; the cobwebs are its charm.

The Sheppard Act, Washington’s precursor to Prohibition, went into effect on October 31, 1917, and Shoo’s closed its doors at 10 pm on the 31st, when they ran out of liquor.

Gin or Whiskey?

Quickly after its introduction, the Rickey came to be primarily a Bourbon drink, but by the turn of the Century, it was most commonly made with gin. Both versions have their charms, but when the mercury is climbing, you realize the gin version came to fashion for a reason. Choose what you like, but the gin and lime combination is lighter and, frankly, works better than the bourbon and lime combination. Old Tom gin is particularly good here, but Plymouth and London Dry work just fine too.

To Sugar or Not to Sugar?

There are recipes out there that insist that a Rickey should have a bit or a lot of sugar. These recipes are wrong. A Rickey should not be a sweet drink; it is for grown-ups, and it is to be drunk on hot days. The addition of sugar makes it merely a bad riff on a Tom Collins, and none of us need that.

And, while it sounds like a lot of hooey, the addition of the spent lime shell into the drink is essential. Without the skin of the lime, you have a hit of booze, some lime juice and some bubbly water. It is not exciting, nor is it particularly good. But the essential oils in the skin of the lime shell, released when the juice is pressed into the glass, and the bitter pith and flesh of the fruit elevate the drink. You may think it is o.k. to use just lime juice, spirits and soda, but it is not.

A Recipe

With a reluctant backward glance the well-disciplined child held to her nurse’s hand and was pulled out the door, just as Tom came back, preceding four gin rickeys that clicked full of ice.

Gatsby took up his drink.

“They certainly look cool,” he said, with visible tension.

We drank in long, greedy swallows.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The Gin Rickey

1.5-2 oz Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, depending on how long your day has been.
Half of One Lime
Sparkling Water, as bubbly as possible. (If you are lucky enough to have access to Topo Chico, it shines here.)

Using a juice press, squeeze the juice of half a lime into a tall glass of about 10 oz. and drop the spent shell of the lime into the glass. Add your measure of gin, several large ice cubes and top with the Sparkling Water. Stir gently so as not to dissipate the bubbles. Drink in long, greedy swallows.