The Rickey

Celebrate the Fourth of July with this democratic, pluralistic, highly refreshing cocktail.

A raspberry rickey.
A raspberry rickey, a twist on the D.C. cocktail.

Photo by Kasia/Shutterstock

In suggesting the rickey as the ideal drink to quench an Independence-Day thirst, I want first to stress its simplicity. You combine liquor and fresh lime juice in a tall glass, add ice cubes and carbonated water, garnish with a wedge or wheel of lime, and start to feel the rightness of its Freon epithet: This is “air conditioning in a glass.” A basic rickey is no more difficult to make than a gin and tonic, and it is easier to swallow, from certain class perspectives, as it carries none of the G&T’s yacht-club connotations. This ease of mixing and freedom from Anglophiliac mannerism recommend the rickey as a populist beverage.

Further, it is pluralistic. The rickey is a family of drinks. From one basic idea—that lime enlivened by bubbles will restore the crispness of a sweltering soul—come many tipples. My copy of the Mr. Boston bar guide lists the original version (made with American whiskey), the most famous version (made with gin), and eight others (made with applejack and apricot brandy and on and on). There’s a rum rickey in here and also a rumless one, and that’s a fine thing. Here’s a cocktail that is no less a classic in its sweetened mocktail incarnation.

Indeed, the traditions of the boozeless rickey are proud: If you ask for a lime rickey in a bar you will get … well, probably you will get a blank stare, but in some bars you’ll get the elegant limeade that both Sheila Lukins’ U.S.A. Cookbook and Dale DeGroff’s Craft of the Cocktail identify as “the drinking man’s nonalcoholic drink.” Meanwhile, if you ask for a lime rickey in a certain kind of New England restaurant, you will get an old-school treat rich with sugar and soda-shop Americana. John Thorne notes in Simple Cooking: “The lime rickey is to the Boston area what the chocolate egg cream is to New York City—a local phenomenon that, despite passionate fans, resists transplanting to most anywhere else.”

One recent scorching Sunday, I was sitting in a bar, enjoying the juvenile pleasures of a properly Bostonian rickey—it relied only on raspberry syrup for decadence—when I fell into chatting with two discerning boozehounds. It was as if some assistant muse of prose segues had delivered the couple unto me. Here was a woman who had lived for 10 years in Washington, D.C., where the rickey was born in the late 1800s and revived in the early 2000s. (My seat-neighbor credited this revival to Washington’s status as home to our country’s “nerdiest bartenders”—her fond estimation of all the disaffected ex-grad-students devoting their analytical skills to Negroni variations.)

She mentioned that the D.C. Council declared the rickey Washington’s official “native cocktail” (in 2011) and reminisced about the clever variations that bartenders would serve each July, during an annual Rickey Month competition. I silently began developing arguments in favor of sucking back rickeys on the Fourth: If the drink has been proven to put up a good fight against the awful heat of our national capital, doesn’t that recommend its fitness for battle on our National Day? And if America’s not going to give Washingtonians a real voice in the legislative branch, can’t we at least support their hometown tipple? Taxation without representation, mitigated by inebriation?

The rickey has been a political liquid from the outset. Its eponym is one Col. Joseph K. Rickey, a hall-of-fame schmooze who grew up near St. Louis and variously worked as a riverboat gambler, a stock-market speculator, and a Democratic lobbyist. (It may not be meaningful to strictly distinguish among those occupations.) “Cousin Joe soon found that silently guiding the destinies of legislatures was not an unpleasant business,” according to a family tale unearthed by a booze blog. “The main thing was to know the men who controlled the votes. This meant eating, drinking, laughing, and gambling with them; all things that suited his fancy and in which he excelled.”

In the 1880s, Rickey left Missouri for Washington, where he became a regular at—and, in time, the owner of—Shoomaker’s, a very dirty bar located near the intersection of 14th Street NW’s Newspaper Row and E Street’s Rum Row. (The proximity of those thoroughfares was not totally random.) According to a Prohibition-era account, “Shoo’s was known among well-informed bibuli the length of the land as Washington’s most remarkable saloon, the birthplace of the celebrated concoction dedicated to Col. Joe Rickey, the favorite bar of Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, generals, and politicians.”

The particulars of the rickey’s genesis were long ago lost in a twilit fog of urban legend, garbled anecdote, vain malarkey, barstool caricature, and alcohol-related brain disease. The stories are colorful and contradictory: Was the first rickey ordered by the man himself or by one of his many thousands of close personal friends? Did it cut through the heat of a swampy morning or the haze of a smoke-filled backroom? Was it christened in D.C. or elsewhere in this great nation?

Who cares? What matters, on July 4, 2014, is that many policymakers have endorsed their effervescent excellence. Reading D.C.’s “native cocktail” proclamation into the Congressional Record in 2011, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton pointed to the tale of the rickey’s ascent as “a part of Washington’s history that will humanize politicians,” thus offering us a sincere reason to enjoy these drinks this weekend. Alternatively, we can celebrate the drink’s history ironically this weekend, despising the political class while sipping its signature cocktail, which is named for a guy who makes an extended cameo in the 1894 report of a special Senate committee investigating bribery.

Either way, it is clear that it is right to raise a rickey when toasting to all the glorious ideals and compromised principles of these here United States. Embrace your freedom of choice: Maybe you’ll make yours with a gin that is impressively aromatic or a bourbon that is not impressively expensive. Exercise your American ingenuity: The Joy of Cooking suggests that “a luxurious rickey can be concocted by adding a teaspoon or so of liqueur to the lime juice.”

Express your opinions about rickey-mixing in a manner appropriate to the world’s foremost democratic republic: Some purists think that a rickey is not a rickey unless the bartender tosses the squeezed shell of a lime half into the glass. I am certain that these people, debating this point with those who strongly feel otherwise, can discuss their viewpoints with a great deal of respect for the opposition and for nuance itself, as guided by the example of contemporary civic discourse.