July Fourth brings forth an overabundance of patriotic iconography—giant fluttering flags, red, white, and blue firework displays and parades of ancient firetrucks and civil war re-enactors. It’s how we mark our independence and our right to serve neighbors badly charred hot dogs.
But let’s pause the John Philip Sousa marches for a moment to celebrate an important yet under-appreciated cog in the American political system: the lobbyist. These are the people who not only know how the sausage is made, but how best to grease the griddle. And to mark the occasion there may be no better cocktail to hoist than the Lime Rickey—or Gin or Whiskey Rickey. Fix it however best suits your palate, as long as it is properly Rickeyfied.
So, who was this Rickey anyway? Colonel Joe Rickey was a banker and large-scale farmer in Calloway County, Missouri. Starting in the 1880s, business often brought him to Washington, D.C., where he lobbied and invested in real estate. This included a bar called Shoomaker’s, which attracted influential politicians. Here, he bent some ears and, possibly, some laws.
Some accounts say he invented his eponymous drink; others that a bartender created it for him. “I am not the author,” Rickey himself once averred. “I was merely its introducer in the East.” Rickey ordered it regularly, others noticed and asked for “that thing Rickey drinks.” It was soon called a Joe Rickey, and then was abbreviated to just the “Rickey.” The drink’s repute spread from the bar to neighborhood and then beyond. “I was once in the bar of the Palace Hotel, in San Francisco, drinking a ginger ale, when a gentleman came in and asked for a ‘Rickey,’” Rickey once recalled. “Yes, it was a proud moment for me.”
I turned up one odd counter-narrative from 1893 recounting the “generally accepted story” that the drink was invented by one “Joe Ricci,” a New Orleans bartender. The author also wanted to correct the false idea that it had been invented in India and should not be spelled Rickee. My guess: somebody got Rick-rolled.
The drink, as another account noted during its heyday in 1895, “is as simple as it is soothing.” It consists of little more than a glass of cracked ice, into which a half-lime is squeezed, followed by a jigger of whiskey then topped with seltzer water. No sugar. Never sugar. It is one of those drinks that is so simple, that the lore is more interesting than the drink. No doubt people had likely been drinking something akin to this at least since J. J. Schweppe figured out how to manufacture carbonated mineral water in 1783, but Rickey gave it the gloss of a good story.
Rickey himself always made his drink with whiskey, but somehow, somewhere, the drink was introduced to gin (generally Holland or Old Tom, whose sweetness would somewhat offset the tartness of the lime). The Gin Rickey became the standard. Rickey did not approve of gin’s incursion, but he did not put up a fierce resistance.
One feature of the drink was the ritual, which has now been lost. Rickey noted that the barkeep’s job was to deliver the ingredients, but the drink was to be compounded by the drinker himself. Rickey reported that he had learned of the drink from a German doctor friend in St. Louis, who did not like the taste of beer, which was a problem for someone living in St. Louis in the 1880s. “He would call for a glass of cracked ice, lime juice, whiskey and seltzer” and then mix it up for himself.
Other bars followed suit, and this technique evidently traveled east with Rickey. One late 19th century account noted the proper procedure to make the drink: the bartender, after “making an ostentatious pretense of washing and drying his hands,” would slice a “juicy lime” in half and squeeze it through a strainer into a tall glass with ice. Then a bottle of gin would be set in front of the customer. “It is the etiquette of the fashionable bar that in the concoction of the ‘gin rickey’ the patron shall be the judge of the amount of spirits that he at that moment requires.” (For several reasons, most involving the words “pour cost” and “are-you-fucking-kidding-me?” this approach would not fly today.)
The Gin Rickey did not much thrive beyond the initial mania of the 1880s and the 1890s. By 1900, one writer was grousing that “the rickey lacks character.” Sometimes a drink falls out of favor for no good reason. The Rickey is not one of those drinks. It fell out of favor for a good reason.
That one writer was right. It does lack character, as well as complexity. The best that can be said about it is that it’s an efficient coolant, and does a good job of making a day of intolerable summer heat into one marginally more tolerable. It is a fine if unremarkable pre-air-conditioning drink—the coolness of the gin and the tartness of the lime and the effervescence of the bubbles help distract from one’s overheated misery. To sip a Rickey was to be suddenly in your skivvies, sitting in front of a fan blowing across a large block of ice.
I’m not so sure how I feel about the more recent revival of the Rickey—I’m all for bringing back what’s been lost, but it’s my opinion that that sitting across from a fan and large block of ice is not quite as sensible as central air-conditioning.
But as drinks go, it is simple and fool-proof. When the heat of summer renders the thought of a more complicated drink a daunting task, the Rickey is there to complete you.
Also, on this holiday, it serves as a refreshing reminder than lobbyists are often more effective than useful.