Having over the years consumed drinks containing ingredients from beet juice to charcoal to pine needles, when I first heard of Ranch Water, I’ll admit I cast up a quiet plea to heaven: Please Lord, do not let this drink contain ranch dressing. Next I thought of actual ranches I’ve been to, where the water in play was usually brown hollers encircled by slurping cows or mud-slathered pigs.
Now that I’ve looked into it, I’m happy to report that Ranch Water — which after sloshing around Texas for decades has recently galloped around the country at such speeds that entrepreneurs are betting their ranches on it — contains neither buttermilk nor pig-rinsings.
At its most basic, the drink that sweltering Texans are throwing together is just tequila, lime juice and mineral water. That makes for a pretty tart drink, so many add some form of sweetener, often orange liqueur.
Bars all over Texas have some variation on their menu. The three-ingredient version is a bright low-sugar sip; adding orange liqueur makes for something like a margarita in highball form. And it’s easy to ad-lib, throwing in some jalapeño slices, adding summer fruit, switching up the spirit.
“A bunch of people out here refer to it as the Ranch Water because cowboys are out there working hard all day, and they want good water, but they want it a little bit spiked,” says Eloise Bryan, lead concierge at the Gage Hotel in Marathon, Tex., whose White Buffalo Bar is often named as one possible originator of the drink. But, she admits, “there’s really not hard details. It’s been such a popular drink for such a long time that everything gets a little fuzzy.”
This is not unique to Texas. Stories about the provenance of cocktails are notoriously loaded with the kind of longhorn-produced substances you’d find in actual ranch water. While it’s sometimes possible to verify that cocktail X, composed of eight ingredients in specific proportions, came out of Bar Highfalutin in 2004, people have been combining spirits, soda water and citrus for a good, long while. I suspect what we’re now calling Ranch Water has been around for many decades, but don’t underestimate the value of a good handle. A name helps a drink travel. (You know, the kind of name that makes idiots wonder if it contains ranch dressing.)
Still, over the past month, I joined a fair number of people trying to track down its origins. Several sources noted that I was the latest in a string of callers and didn’t have anything more definite than they had for the last hack hoping to dig up the Deep Throat of Ranch Water, some Stetsoned Sam Elliott-type who could meet under the rodeo stands to pull a bottle of mineral water out of his saddlebag and spin a convincing origin story.
The closest I found to a plausible originator and namer is Kevin Williamson, chef and owner of Ranch 616 in Austin, who says that he has had the drink on the menu since it opened in 1998, and that he and his team trained the folks at the Gage Hotel more than a decade ago. He’s firm enough in his claim that he has applied for a trademark on the Ranch Water name.
Several brands now marketing canned versions tried to partner with him when they were launching, but he turned them down. “If I were smarter, I’d be rich,” he says. Still, the drink has served Ranch 616 pretty well: Per their receipts, they’ve sold $18 million worth of the drink over the years.
“The way we served it, which I think is one of the reasons it was a hit, was as a strong margarita, three-quarters of the way up in a Collins glass, and we gave the customer the full bottle of Topo Chico, so they were in charge of diluting their own drink,” Williamson says. “Some people would just sip the Topo Chico back. Sorority girls from UT put as much water as they could so they could drink more. Everybody has their own sense of ownership for it.”
As loose and varied a tipple as the Ranch Water may be, there’s broad agreement that Topo Chico, a mineral water from Monterrey, Mexico, is key. Topo Chico has a high level of carbonation and a faint salinity that make the drink more flavorful (and using some fancy French bubbly to make a Ranch Water is probably a hangin’ offense in some parts of Texas).
Williamson made it with Topo from the start, even though at the time he opened Ranch 616, he couldn’t find a distributor, so his source was the grocery chain Fiesta Mart, which was founded to cater to Latin Americans. “I would drive to Fiesta Mart three or four days a week to buy all the Topo Chico I could,” he says. If the restaurant ran out of the water, the Ranch Water was off the menu. Today, he says, they get it at the back door because Coca-Cola owns it.
Seeing the drink he originated spread, Williamson wrestled with his feelings hearing bull-hockey origin stories. “At first, I had an attitude about it,” he admits. “And then I just figured that was doing me no good. But if I was sitting at a bar, I always liked to ask the bartender, where did this drink come from?” He’s heard some doozies, including that it was created by a grizzled old Mexican man who lived at the top of the Davis Mountains and would travel two days by donkey to a bar.
Ranch Water has spread well beyond Texas now. In D.C., Tracy Wisse, bar manager of the Tex-Mex hotspot Republic Cantina, says they added Ranch Water to their menu within the past year, at the request of Texas transplants. “We have a bit of a Texas cult following, so people were kind asking for it,” she recalls. At first theirs was the bare-bones tequila, lime and Topo Chico, but it evolved: The bar now adds some agave syrup and a little Tajin (a Mexican brand of chili-lime salt) for flavor and texture.
Maybe it hasn’t hit wider in Washington because we’ve already got something pretty close. After all, the basic Ranch Water is one lime-half away from Washington’s tart homegrown cocktail, the Rickey, which has been around since the 1800s. Usually made with gin or bourbon, it’s a similarly tart, bubbly highball, also made with lime and a slightly saline mineral water, also perfect for defying wretched summers.
It may irritate some Texans to know that something very close to Ranch Water was made right here in the Deep State more than a century ago. Maybe we could rename the Rickey the Swamp Water?
Want to save this recipe? Click the bookmark icon below the serving size at the top of this page, then go to My Reading List in your washingtonpost.com user profile.
- 1 1/2 ounces tequila, preferably silver
- 1 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1/2 ounce Cointreau or other orange liqueur (optional)
- 1/2 ounce agave syrup (optional)
- 2 to 3 ounces chilled Topo Chico mineral water
- Fresh lime slices, for serving (optional)
Fill a highball glass with ice. Add the tequila, lime juice, Cointreau and agave syrup, if using, and stir to chill and combine. Top with the mineral water, gently stir again, and serve garnished with lime slices, if using.
Per serving (1 cocktail, without optional ingredients)
Calories: 104; Total Fat: 0 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 5 mg; Carbohydrates: 3 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein: 0 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.
Tested by M. Carrie Allan; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you make this recipe? Take a photo and tag us on Instagram with #eatvoraciously.
More from Voraciously: