YOUR JULY FOURTH Sangria Sparkler theme drinks are a hazy memory now. But local tipplers have been raising a civic-minded toast all month to a highball that’s as Washingtonian as half-smokes and humidity: the rickey, a libation that bubbles with such strong capital ties that it’s legitimately called D.C.’s native cocktail. Served in a tall glass, the drink consists of gin or bourbon, lime and seltzer — a devilishly simple cooler that lip smacks of midsummer.
“It’s incredibly refreshing, like air-conditioning in a glass,” says Chantal Tseng, mixologist at the Tabard Inn (1739 N St. NW; 202-331-8528). The chilly potion inspired the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild to declare July “Rickey Month,” a second-annual celebration of the cocktail in which 15 local bartenders add a remixed rickey to their drink menus.
They’ll whip up their recipes for judges in a night of rickey rivalry Aug. 3. Tseng’s throwdown: the Gunslinger Rickey, a blend of bourbon, lime, San Pellegrino Chinotto soda and house-smoked mescal cherries.
You can down, er, sample Tseng’s drink and those of her rivals starting at 6:30 p.m. at Adams Morgan‘s Bourbon (2321 18th St. NW; 202-332-0800). A $10 cover includes a rickey and access to the spirited revelry. Each competing cocktail includes a base of sponsoring liquor companies Woodford Reserve Bourbon or Hendrick’s Gin.
From there, the Guild members’ recipes are a study in rickeys gone wild. Think thyme syrup-soaked limes, purple basil flowers, muddled jalapenos, watermelon puree, jicama-lime soda, rosemary-infused grapefruit soda and roasted pepper soda, to name just a few ingredients that the 15 wide-ranging entries include.
Dating back to 1883, the rickey was first concocted at popular downtown drinking hole Shoomaker’s, which operated on E Street near Pennsylvania Avenue until Prohibition. Legend says the drink was born when a patron sauntered in with a few Jamaican limes, fresh from a jaunt to the Caribbean, explains Dan Searing, bar manager at Columbia Heights’ soon-to-open Room 11 (3234 11th St. NW; 202-332-3234).
Shoomaker’s barman George Williamson squeezed the fruit into a bourbon and soda; saloon regular and lobbyist Col. Joe Rickey liked it enough to order a second round.
With Rickey’s endorsement, the tart drink became legendary — and a more lasting legacy than any influence-peddling coup. Gin ultimately gained favor as the more fashionable base spirit, and the rickey spawned a whole lineage of lime-seltzer-liquor potions based on Rickey’s original cocktail.
“The rickey is part of our cocktail heritage,” Searing says. “It’s a classic because it’s basic, but at the time innovative and a bit exotic.” Searing calls his competing concoction the Rickey-Tikki-Tavi, an India-inspired gin drink with tamarind syrup and homemade “Bombay Bitters” (Garam Masala-infused grain alcohol).
Blending a rickey on your own bar cart (or kitchen counter) can add a chilly twist to parties, too. Simply squeeze half a lime into a goblet or tall glass and drop in the shell. Fill the glass with ice, add 2 ounces of gin or bourbon, and then top with soda water, stir and serve.
From there, experiment with other carbonated sodas, mineral waters and other citrus fruit. Just remember: The drink should be refreshing and contain little or no sugar.
“Having a refreshing drink is essential in July and August in D.C. The rickey really fills that category,” says Derek Brown, event organizer and mixologist at the Gibson (2009 14th St. NW; 202-232-2156). “It’s tart, enlivening, and it’s going to rejuvenate you. And it’s not only regionally made but also regionally appropriate.”
REVELRY & RIVALRY
Try out the recipes of Rickey Month at local bars and restaurants such as Tryst, Bourbon and Proof through this weekend. See DCmetromix.com for a complete list, then, until Aug. 3, vote for your favorite recipe at the same site. Last year’s winner was Justin Guthrie, now bar manager at the new W Hotel (515 15th St. NW; 202-661-2400) for his Black Pepper Gin Rickey. You can find that recipe online (Dccraftbartendersguild.com).
RECIPE FILE: GUNSLINGER RICKEY
» 1.5 oz. Woodford Reserve Bourbon
» Juice of half a lime
» 4-5 oz. San Pellegrino Chinotto soda
» Smoked mescal cherries (or fresh cherries) and a lime wheel
Fill a tall glass with cracked iced. Pour in bourbon and Chinotto soda. Add lime juice. Garnish with cherries and lime wheel. Sip, and feel instantly cooler.
Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photos by Lawrence Luk for Express
Recipe courtesy Chantal Tseng, Tabard Inn