Many cities claim ownership of an iconic cocktail. New York City has the Manhattan, and New Orleans is the birthplace of the Sazerac. Washington, D.C. is home to the Rickey, a lesser-known classic cocktail that’s both refreshing and easy to make.
The Rickey was named for Colonel Joe Rickey, and the story goes back to the 19th century. The drink was traced to Shoomaker’s bar, which is now the site of 1331 bar, located inside the J.W. Marriott on Pennsylvania Ave. The bar still serves the drink and has a plaque commemorating the historic creation.
The cocktail was officially named the District’s native cocktail back in 2011. There may not be droves of tourists clamoring for a Rickey, but bartenders across town have nonetheless embraced the cocktail as their own. The D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild, which was founded by a group of acclaimed mixologists, organizes a month-long Rickey celebration each July that includes a mixology competition with the area’s top bartenders. The 2015 prize for Best Rickey went to Jo-Jo Valenuela of Brine restaurant in Fairfax, Virginia.
While Rickey’s were originally made with whiskey, using a good dry gin is by far the more popular route these days. The basic recipe calls for 1.5 to 2 ounces of spirit (Old Tom gin is a good option), juice of half a lime and soda water in a highball glass.
The beauty of the Rickey is its simplicity.
“You don’t really need to get too crazy with it,” says Jeff Faile, the bar and spirits director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns multiple bars and restaurants in and around Washington, D.C.
The lack of infusions, expensive ingredients and complicated techniques makes the Rickey a great drink to mix at home or order at a bare-bones bar, whether it’s in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere. The soda water lends a little drier finish then you’d get with a typical gin and tonic, so a splash of simple syrup can be added for those with a sweet tooth. District Commons in Washington, D.C., for example, makes its signature gin Rickey using a mix of both fresh and sweetened lime juice to satisfy that craving. Bourbon will produce a slightly sweeter taste too.
“Made the traditional way, it’s tart,” says Scott Clime, wine and beverage director at Passion Food Hospitality group, which owns District Commons.
A touch of sugar or a tweak of the soda is about all you can expect in terms of variations. There’s no reason to get fancy with the formula.
The Rickey is the perfect drink for D.C. weather, which can be hot, humid and sunny during the summer months. It’s a classic American cocktail that should be on any enthusiasts list and in every bartender’s repertoire.