23. Gin rickey

2 Sep

For just a moment, before he drank down the gin-rickey which she had mixed for him, he entertained a suspicion that his wife’s physical contact was for inflammatory and obliterative ends, to burn up in a flame of passion all traces of more trivial emotion, as the experienced burglar has been known to burn the mansion after ransacking its treasure-chests. But by the time he had finished his second gin-rickey he no longer gave harborage to such battered suspicions. It was a new world, he told himself, and he was there to make the most of it, to make the most of it with Torrie at his side. And as though to seal that determination he asked for still another gin-rickey.

— Arthur Stringer, The Wine of Life (New York: Knopf, 1921), p. 177.

Although it lacked the storied tradition of the mint julep, there was a time, at the turn of the last century, when the upstart gin rickey rivaled the Grand Old Man of summer drinks in popularity. A simple mixture of gin, lime juice and seltzer water, it is closely related to the gin fizz and the gin daisy, both of which are made with lemon juice, but also sweetened with sugar. The gin rickey was, according to Tim Daly, whose recipe we’ll follow here, “for a drink containing an alcoholic ingredient . . . the most cooling and refreshing beverage known” (Bartender’s Encyclopedia [Worcester, MA: Daly, 1903], pp. 57-8).

That claim is borne out not only in practice, by sipping from a glass on a late summer’s evening in Georgia, but also in the novel The Real New York by Rupert (uncle of Howard) Hughes. Asked by an Englishman, Calverly, about the “science of keeping cool”, the New Yorker De Peyster discourses on the benefits of ice, which in London is treated “as a sort of splendid luxury, a quaint little American affectation”, before saying the following:

There are thousands of other ingenious devices for distracting the mind from too much brooding on the rise of the thermometer. There is, for instance, the cooling gin rickey, and there is a curious fact about it. Its distinguishing feature is the juice of the lime, and the sale varies so much according to the heat that the lime has become the greatest gamble in the produce market. It is vitally important that the limes should be fresh; so, if a ship comes up from the Tropics and unloads its cargo on a boilingly hot day, the limes may sell for as high as $49 a barrel. If, however, the ship arrives here in cool weather the cargo may sell as low as 49 cents a barrel. There are thousands of old clubmen who watch for the first consignment of limes as eagerly as the farmer looks for the first robin redbreast.

— Rupert Hughes, The Real New York (New York: Smart Set Publishing Co., 1904), pp. 294-5.

Now, despite its youth, there was still some debate about the rickey’s origins (as with so many other mixed drinks). One thing was certain: it was called into being by one Colonel Joseph K. Rickey of Missouri. The only question was where and when. There were those who argued that it had first seen the light of day, and by accident, in Manhattan’s St James, a hotel on Broadway and Twenty-Sixth Street, which closed in 1896. That’s the line we find Jefferson Williamson later pushing:

The barroom was his [Rickey’s] favorite part of the hotel, and there he met a Philadelphia newspaperman who produced some limes and asked the bar-tender to mix two drinks according to a certain receipt. Rickey liked the drink so well that he began ordering it steadily and bar-tenders began calling it a “Rickey”. Customers began to say: “Let me try one of those things,” and having tried one, became addicts.

— Jefferson Williamson, The American Hotel: An Anecdotal History (New York: Knopf, 1930), p. 268.

Others insisted that the gin rickey had been invented in Washington, DC. The New York Sun despaired:

It is a matter of comparatively little importance where or when the Rickey originated, whether in the metropolis of the United States or in the National Capital. That statesmanlike fame of Col. Rickey, which, to so great an extent, depends upon his share in this decoction, would be precisely as secure if it had originated in Jefferson City, Joplin or Sedalia, as in Washington or New York. […] Let all such heed this admonition: American mixed drinks are now recovering from a partial eclipse in popularity, and their restoration to former favor will certainly be retarded, if the attention of enthusiasts is to be directed to mere questions of chronology and locality.

— “An Unreasonable Dispute”, article first appeared on 23 July, 1899; reprinted in Casual Essays of the Sun (New York: Cooke, 1905), pp. 366-9 (pp. 367-9).

But let’s go back to that claim on behalf of Washington, DC. In the autumn of 1911 a long, detailed article was published in a number of newspapers and magazines by a supposed eye-witness to the events leading up to the creation of this particular summer cooler. What’s surprising is that the drink that Rickey apparently created was very different to the one that caught on: a cross between a whiskey sour and a whiskey smash. The story starts on the Friday before “the meeting and organization of the Forty-Eighth Congress the first Monday in December, 1883”; the Colonel has won a bet with a man from Pennsylvania on the outcome of an election and celebrates with a bout of binge drinking that lasts the entire weekend.

The following morning, after little sleep, we adjourned from the hotel to Shoemaker’s to brace up, that we might got to “The Hill” and witness the organization of the House and the election of Carlisle. Joe had a splitting headache, an affliction which had never assailed me, but I was in condition for a draught of the most cheering and stimulating every invented by bibulous man. There were half a dozen of the boys in the company, all feeling pretty much the same way, which was rather a bad one.

“Gentlemen,” said Colonel Rickey, “I’m going to invent a new drink now and here. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I feel that any of the old ones would not be appealing. Mr. Barkeep, I see you have fresh limes. It is good of you to have them at this season when limes are not supposed to be. Mr. Barkeep, please be so good as to squeeze very gently the juice of one lime in a glass for each of the gentlemen present. Squeeze gently, that you may not express one single drop of the juice of the outer rind, which is somewhat bitter and not that splendid acid which we need this morning and which can be found only in the lime sublime. So! Now a little crushed ice in each glass. So! Now a bottle of your finest Bourbon and a whisky glass for each gentleman. So! Now, gentlemen, each of you pour into this extra glass just the quantity of whisky you wish to drink. So! Now, gentlemen, pour whisky over the ice in the glasses in which are the gentle juices of the lime. So! Now, Mr. Barkeep, you will please fill each glass from the siphon, and let the flow be forceful, that the whisky and the juice of the lime may be thoroughly wedded. So! Now, gentlemen, though we have not partaken of this drink I know it’s going to be something divine, and let us christen it the ‘Rickey’, as it may be the one thing by which I shall be made immortal. Let each gentleman lift his glass to his lips and his eyes to the heavens and say, ‘We christen thee, O nectar, for all time to be known as the Rickey!’

The Rickey was christened. There was a moment of silence after the drink and the one of the company said: ‘That is a cup for both Bacchus and Venus! Oh, man from Missouri! Generations will arise to call thee blessed; Mr. Barkeep, let’s have another.”

— “Inventor of the Gin Rickey,” Mixer and Server, vol. 20: 11 (15 November, 1911), pp. 43-5 (p. 44).

Apparently, though, he was no admirer of what became known as the “gin rickey”. Or, in fact, of gin, on which subject he expressed himself in the manner of a true Southern gentleman:

One thing, however, that always exasperated Joe was to hear persons ask for gin Rickeys, gin being a drink that had never passed his lips.

“Gin Rickey, sir!” he exclaimed to one of those offenders, “there is no such thing, sir. I am from Missouri, sir, and my name is Rickey. I am the fortunate inventor, sir, of the matchless drink called the Rickey. Gin is a nigger drink, sir. Another thing, sir, you can’t make a Rickey with lemon juice. That is a profanation of the name of Rickey. You must have lime juice, sir, from limes when they are at their pristine freshness, and, for the liquor, bourbon is the best whisky, though any good whisky may be used. But it must be whisky, and the only permissible citrus is that of the lime.” (Ibid., pp. 44-5)

In his Bartender’s Encyclopedia, Tim Daly does in fact include a recipe for the “whiskey rickey”, substituting whiskey for gin and vichy water or soda for seltzer. This version, he writes, “by persons who are impartial to the flavor of gin, and considered by many superior in flavor to the gin rickey.” (Daly, p. 94). Persons like the Colonel himself.

Here’s our recipe, adapted, as I say, from Daly. In a glass filled with ice pour:

2 oz. gin (Plymouth, but any is fine)

the juice of one lime

top off with club soda.

Postscript. A macabre tale involving a rickey:

Arthur Denyse testified at the quarantine investigation today that he had mixed a gin rickey in the urn which had contained the ashes of former Superintendent of Street Cleaning George E. Waring.

The ashes, Denyse said, he had first dumped out of the window. All this occurred in Dr. Doty’s private office, where he had his friends, including two young women, were having a lark. Denyse said the party had a bottle of ign.

“I thought we’d better make some use of that gin,” he said, “and I told them so. Some one suggested that I make a rickey. I said that I would and we looked around for something to make it in. There wasn’t anything handy and so one of the men went into the laboratory to get something.

“He came back with a vase, or urn, I guess you call it. ‘Here’s Colonel’s Waring’s ashes,’ he said. I took the urn over to the window, dumped the ashes out and made a rickey in it after we’d washed it.”

The witness said that Colonel Waring had died of yellow fever on Swinburne Island and that his body had been cremated.

“His ashes were knocking around there a long time,” he said. “Nobody claimed them. I don’t know that his ashes were in that vase, but some one’s were. That’s certain.”

— Baltimore Sun, 29 July 1911, p. 11.


One Response to “23. Gin rickey”

  1. Niklas May 22, 2014 at 7:30 am #

    Great article, I’ve just discovered your blog and can’t seem to stop reading for i keep finding new articles to read.
    When you wrote “top off with club soda” in the recipe I hope you meant soda from a siphon. Because only real soda siphons give the perfect seltzer for cocktails. And beautiful vintage soda siphons underline the age and class of any cocktail creation.

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