When Derek Brown first considered the gin rickey, he wasn’t too impressed. “It sounded like a stupid drink to me,” says the writer and minister of shakeology behind the Columbia Room. “I thought, ‘It’s gin and lime juice. It’s going to taste like lime juice.’ And it did.”
For most bartenders, this might have been the end of the investigation: Mix drink, consume drink, dismiss drink forever. But most bartenders are not Derek Brown, a man consumed as much by the culture outside the glass as the alcohol inside it. He’s not a board member of the Museum of the American Cocktail for nothing. The guy enjoys a good stiff shot of history.
The rickey, Brown would discover, was sort of his “Being John Malkovich.” It provided a portal back to late 19th-century Washington, when the District was still a city caught between its rural, undeveloped past and its urban, superpower future. It was in this awkward period, in the mid-1880s, that a bartender named George A. Williamson apparently created the rickey at a famous/infamous bar named Shoomaker’s, located on E Street NW, just off Pennsylvania Avenue. It was the go-to drink of a loyal Shoomaker’s patron and Democratic lobbyist named Col. Joseph Kyle Rickey, who is often credited as the co-inventor of the cocktail. (The colonel preferred bourbon, but gin soon became the spirit of choice in the cocktail.)
But according to Rickey’s obit (PDF) in The Washington Post, published on April 24, 1903, following the colonel’s suicide, the drink’s collaborator may have actually been a member of Congress. As noted in the obit:
Col. Rickey, before he became the owner of the resort on E street, would go into Shoomaker’s and ask George Williamson, who is still there, for a drink composed of ‘Belle of Nelson’ whisky, a piece of ice, and a siphon of seltzer. Fred Mussey, now gone, watched Col. Rickey indulge in these beverages. He finally took the recipe to New York, and there called fora ‘Rickey drink,’ which he explained and...thus spread its fame. One day Representative Hatch, of Missouri, went into Shoomaker’s and asked for ‘one of those Rickey drinks, with a half of a lime in it.’ This was given Mr. Hatch and the rickey was complete.
Brown, of course, had already read this bit of questionable history. He’s also read several other Origin of Rickey stories, including the apocryphal-sounding Speaker-of-the-House wager tale from 1911 (PDF). But the author that Brown trusts most is George Rothwell Brown, who credited Williamson in both book form (“Washington: A Not Too Serious History,” 1930) and, to a lesser degree, in a 1923 column for The Post (PDF). In the Wikipedia entry for the rickey, which (not surprisingly) Brown wrote, it notes:
Brown suggests that an unknown stranger discussed with Williamson how drinks were prepared in the Caribbean with half of a lime, gave Williamson some limes and asked him to substitute rye whiskey for rum. The following morning Williamson was said to have made one for Col. Rickey who approved.
Regardless of the drink’s creator, Brown is smitten with the rickey’s place in Washington history. To him, it’s the cocktail that defines the District during its “moment of reconstruction.”
“Everybody who was deciding what America...would be was drinking at that bar,” Brown says. “It’s a very cool thing when you think about it.”
Shoomaker’s itself was a pretty cool thing, too, a pack-rat’s paradise of junk, booze, cobwebs and alcohol-fueled ennui. In 1909, a gentleman named Elbert Hubbard published a book on Shoomaker’s, and he described it with great, bone-dry detail:
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.
It’s easy to understand how this intersection of dive bar, history and emerging power could captivate someone like Brown, an emerging power broker himself, an influential writer and mixologist who grew up with a taste for Iggy Pop and Motorhead. As a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild, Brown has championed the rickey from the start, teaching Washington the importance of its signature drink, hosting annual rickey contests and pronouncing July as “Rickey Month.”
This year, however, Brown looked to up the ante. He wanted the District of Columbia to recognize the rickey as the city’s official cocktail, much like New Orleans did for the sazerac. Brown approached some staff members of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who apparently told the rickey advocate that the city would need more time to consider adding the cocktail to the District’s list of official symbols.
“But the proclamation,” Brown recalls one staffer saying, “is something we can do right away.”
So yesterday, Evans read a proclamation at the J.W. Marriott’s 1331 Bar & Lounge, the approximate site of the historic Shoomaker’s, and declared the rickey as Washington’s “native cocktail.” (The distinction between official cocktail/native cocktail has clearly led to some misleading reporting.)
On Sunday at 5 p.m., the Marriott will go one step further and unveil a plaque (PDF) commemorating the 1331 Bar & Lounge as the birthplace of the rickey. It’s admittedly a convoluted ceremony, given that the Marriott actually has nothing to do with the cocktail’s creation. (The event is by invitation only.)
“I think that’s probably why it was a hard sell,” says Dana Pellicano, who’s in charge of global corporate beverage development for the Marriott chain.
To sell Marriott officials on the plaque, Pellicano took several of the chain’s corporate heavyweights to the Columbia Room, where Brown gave them a boozy lecture on the rickey’s importance. “Derek told the story the way he tells it, and I think people instantly got it,” Pellicano says.
Pellicano believes this is the first time a Marriott has ever unveiled such a commemorative plaque in one of its hotels.
The unveiling will be a sweet moment for Brown who, once he discovered the correct way to prepare a gin rickey (hint: throw the spent lime shell into the cocktail), considers it the perfect summer tipple. He also thinks it’s the perfect symbol for the Capital of the Free World.
“That’s why I harp on this drink,” Brown says. “It’s not harder to make than a gin and tonic, which I like because it serves a sort of democratic function.”