CORRECTION: A previous version of this column and an accompanying photo caption misspelled the name of the Tabard Inn's bartender, Kathryn Bangs.
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.
At Urbana, Kevin Rogers's Dupont "Gin" Rickey (oddly named since the base spirit is bourbon) was my favorite rickey of the evening. I thought Rogers struck a nice balance between tradition and experimentation. To the basic rickey, he added muddled ginger and honey syrup, which conveyed a depth of flavor unmatched by using lime juice alone.
"The classics are classics for a reason," Rogers said. "A classic recipe is like a chassis. When the chassis is strong, you can make whatever variation you want and it still works."
I take my hat off to Justin Guthrie, bar manager at Central and winner of the rickey contest, who made a delicious black pepper-lime soda, simply mixed with gin over ice, that also ratcheted up the rickey's flavor quotient.
Other standouts included two at Tabard Inn: one from Chantal Tseng, which was made with Dutch-style gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, a dash of absinthe and sparkling wine; and Kathryn Bangs's funky mix of rye whiskey and a thick brown-sugar-balsamic-vinegar syrup.
Bar Pilar's always-inventive Adam Bernbach went a little surrealist with his "Bathtub Gin" Shochu Rickey, in which lime is replaced with yuzu juice, and gin is replaced with shochu infused with botanicals such as juniper, gentian, cassia, citrus zest, then sweetened with a Korean soju (distilled spirits made from sweet potato). Strangely enough, it probably tasted closest to a traditional gin rickey.
"I'm a skewed traditionalist," Bernbach said, sounding a little Dali-esque. "I'm traditional. But I get all my traditions wrong."
At the opposite end of the spectrum was a decidedly proletarian entry from Dan Searing, general manager at the Looking Glass Lounge. His Lime-Berry Rickey, made from bottom-shelf Crystal Palace Gin, lime juice and a compote puree of blackberries and raspberries, was offered for $4.
"Where do you find a $4 cocktail?" Brown wondered aloud.
"Actually," the bartender said, "it's happy hour, so it's only $3 right now."
"It's the people's rickey," Searing said. It was refreshing and tasty. Just the thing for these trying economic times. It made me proud to be a 21st-century American.
Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached at email@example.com.