The Rickey Declared D.C.’s Native Cocktail

Lobbyist and Confederate army veteran Colonel Joseph Rickey—or possibly his bartender, George Williamson—invented the concoction in 1883

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Shoomaker’s was a D.C. dive bar founded by a pair of German immigrants and later bought by lobbyist and Confederate army veteran Colonel Joseph Rickey. The rickey was concocted at his bar sometime in 1883. (Rickey himself is sometimes credited as the inventor of the drink, but others point to bartender George Williamson.) The combination of bourbon, lime, ice and seltzer water was a refreshing hit and is one of D.C.’s culinary claims to fame. Since 2009, July has been known as Rickey Month, when local mixologists provide their own distinctive spins on this incredibly simple drink. And this summer, the rickey was officially declared the city’s native cocktail, honored by a plaque unveiled this past Sunday at the J.W. Marriott located roughly where Shoomakers once stood.

With so many public displays of affection for a cocktail, I had to wonder what all the fuss is about. And there’s a good way to find out.

I had the fixings for a rickey at home and decided to give it a go before trying to order out at the local watering hole. Although gin later became a popular alternative to bourbon as the liquor of choice for this drink, I can’t stand the stuff—it always registers on my palate as Christmas tree swill. I opted for the colonel’s original recipe. Pulling out the relevant odds and ends from my cupboards, I cued up a how-to video in which self-ascribed booze nerd Derek Brown showed me the proper way to throw one together, never minding the fact that he was mixing his with gin (ptooey!). (However, according to drinks expert David Wondrich, it creates a cool, dry drink that would make for desirable imbibing when the mercury climbs past 90.)

My cocktail was tasty and refreshing and the carbonation from the club soda makes it fun to sip on. The lime and the bourbon paired well—a little tart, a little spicy—but as is, it was unremarkable. I kept thinking that it needed a little more in there to really make the flavors pop—like ginger. If I ever decide to order this one out, I have a better idea of what to expect and what local variations make the rickey a cocktail to be reckoned with. Looking at the winners of last year’s rickey mixing contest, it seems you can get some knockout results and still keep the process of mixing the drink pretty simple. The Washington Post has a recipe that seems to fits my personal bill should I decide to mix this one again.

For those of you who don’t especially care for spirits, there is a mocktail (non-alcoholic) version of the rickey that you can use to cool off on a summer day. For those who like the harder version of the drink, the Mariott’s 1331 Bar and Lounge will be offering half price rickeys throughout July.

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