A previous version of this column and an accompanying photo caption misspelled the name of the Tabard Inn's bartender, Kathryn Bangs.
The Colonel Would Have Raised a Glass
Wednesday, August 6, 2008; Page F01
Those of us who make drinks should be so fortunate as to have our obituaries begin like this: "Col. Joseph Karr Rickey, famous throughout the country as the originator of the concoction bearing his name, died suddenly yesterday. . . ."
That was from the April 24, 1903, edition of the New York Times: Yes, once upon a time, people had their priorities straight and duly noted the important things in life. Rickey had fought in the Confederate Army, spent years as an influential lobbyist and "was one of a quartet of famous Colonels who were known in nearly every city in the country." But it was the lime rickey, the refreshing drink he enjoyed on hot days alongside members of Congress at Shoemaker's Bar on Pennsylvania Avenue, that seems to have been his lasting achievement.
The fact that Rickey squeezed some lime and poured a little soda water into his morning "hooker" of bourbon in the late 19th century still means something today. Namely, that Washington has its very own native cocktail, like New Orleans with its Sazerac or San Francisco with its Pisco Punch.
To celebrate that fact, the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild declared July to be Rickey Month and had a month-long contest to see who could come up with the best 21st-century rendition. Guild members even sported little green buttons that said, "Ask Me About My Rickey." The drinking public sent their votes for favorite rickey by e-mail to a Guild address, and the winner was announced at a party Monday night.
First, let's discuss the basic rickey recipe. Into a highball glass filled with ice, one dumps 1 1/2 ounces of whiskey or gin and 1/2 ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice (as well as the shell of the just-squeezed half lime), which is then sweetened (or not) and topped with club soda.
Clearly, it was a great deal easier to get a drink named after yourself a century ago. It's hard to believe anyone even had to "invent" this.
The 10 Guild-member competitors improvised wildly. According to another obituary, in the New York World, the colonel "always contended that the use of rye whiskey or gin in a Rickey made it unfit for a gentleman to drink." So what would he think of a rickey that contained botanical-infused shochu (a Japanese distilled liquor)? Or elderflower liqueur? Or brown sugar balsamic syrup?
It might have driven him to an even earlier grave. In a tragic endnote, the good colonel was believed to have caused his own demise by swallowing carbolic acid. Said the coroner, "I think he must have taken the acid with whisky."
There has been a lot of chatter lately in bartending circles about experimentation versus classicism, about bar chefs and molecular mixologists, about both the virtues and ridiculousness of exciting new ingredients and techniques, and about what will capture drinkers' hearts and minds next. Rickey Month was an interesting opportunity to watch the debate in action.
"Bartenders have always been suckers for exotic or novel ingredients," wrote Derek Brown, one of the event's organizers, in an e-mail. "Ice, in fact, is one of the first novel ingredients. You don't hear so-called purists harkening back to the days when the Sling was served hot or room temperature and cursing the day ice became widely available."
Brown is right, of course. So he and I went on a little rickey tour recently to see what Washington area bartenders are up to.