Washington​’s Native Cocktail

The District of Columbia now has an official cocktail – The Rickey.

I learned this information on my drive into work early yesterday morning from Bob Madigan, WTOP Radio’s Man About Town.  Mr. Madigan’s brief story explained that “D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans will join cocktail aficionados to read a proclamation declaring the rickey as Washington’s native cocktail and declaring July as rickey month in the District.”

The Rickey, it seems, has been a District resident for some time now.  Mr. Madigan summarized the cocktail’s 130 years succinctly: “The rickey was invented in 1883 at Shoomaker’s, a bar once frequented by politicians and journalists. The J.W. Marriott hotel now sits on the Shoomaker’s site, across the street from the John A. Wilson Building, D.C.’s city hall.”

I hadn’t tried the drink before, which was described as an air-conditioner in a glass.  Its ingredients – at least in the recipe’s modern form – are simple enough: gin, club soda, and lime juice squeezed from half a lime (the lime half is also added after being squeezed).  It could be described as an older, more conservative cousin of the mojito.  And although the cocktail’s ingredients are straightforward enough, the drink’s history is just like the mojito’s preparation: muddled.

For a quick history lesson, I always turn first to David Wondrich, who concurs with Madigan’s story recounting the rickey’s birthplace: “Back in the Gilded Age, Shoemaker’s (sic), on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., was, as the 1893 Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States noted, ‘a drinking-bar frequented by politicians, journalists, etc.’”  Further research indicated that, prior to 1914, Shoomaker’s was specifically located at 1331 E Street, NW, amidst of a portion of E Street known as Rum Row.

Then the story becomes muddled: who, exactly, invented the rickey?

Some say it was created by its namesake, Colonel Joseph Rickey, a lobbyist and gambler who frequented Shoomaker’s.  The Wall Street Journal’s Eric Felten writes that each morning, the colonel enjoyed “two ounces of the bar’s finest Kentucky whiskey in a goblet with a cube of ice, and topped with fizzy Apollinaris water. His friends — and sociable fellow that he was, there were many — soon started asking for their whiskey highballs by calling for a ‘Joe Rickey drink.’”

Others, such as historian George Rothwell Brown, claim it was George Williamson, a bartender (and political power broker) at Shoomaker’s.  In his 1930 book Washington: A Not Too Serious History, Brown states that Williamson prepared a whisky and fizzy water drink for Rickey, but also included half a lime.  David Wondrich agrees with this bartender-centric history: “one day in the 1890s, a bartender at Shoemaker’s handed the colonel a little something he was working on — perhaps the one drink known to mixology that can cut through the Precambrian swamp that is the capital in summer.”

Regardless of creator, everyone agrees the cocktail’s recipe quickly changed.  By the 1890s – only about a decade later – Gin Rickeys had replaced the whisky-based rickeys as they were originally preferred by both Rickey and Williamson.  Not everyone agreed with the new gin fad of the late 1800s and early 1900s: “an aged acquaintance of Rickey’s wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post in 1925, lamenting that the colonel’s ‘name was brought to disgrace by being connected with a decoction of which gin is the component part of chief value in this degenerate age.’”

So, just under a century-and-a-half after its creation, the Rickey is now officially a part of Washington.  Thanks to the City Council for formalizing a long-standing piece of Washington tradition.

Picture courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Published in: on July 15, 2011 at 9:36 am  Comments Off on Washington​’s Native Cocktail  
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