The Birth, Death and Rebirth Of The Gin Rickey


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The Birth, Death, and Rebirth Of The Gin Rickey

“Gin Rickey, sir! There is no such thing, sir!” Colonel Joe Rickey shouted with disdain when he heard a man order the drink in a New York bar in 1900.

Colonel Rickey’s disdain was earned, as he was quick to inform the unsuspecting patron. “I am from Missouri, sir, and my name is Rickey,” he went on, according to a letter in the Pittsburgh Dispatch by an author who swears the story to be “absolutely true.” “I am the fortunate inventor, sir, of the matchless drink called the Rickey.”

Rickey was one to take umbrage on all issues, but especially on the galling case of the Gin Rickey. It had only been 17 years since the drink that bore his name had been created, but in those years it had morphed into something he no longer recognized. It had changed from a drink of his own creation into that thing that we, today, call the Gin Rickey.

Colonel Rickey’s story starts on Friday, Nov. 30, 1883, the night after a new moon. Rickey, or Joe, as everyone called him, was a Democratic lobbyist and, as such, he was accustomed to being the center of attention. That night at the Willard’s bar in Washington was no exception.

Carlisle and Randall

John Carlisle, left, and Samuel Randall. Photos via Library of Congress.

In those days, the bar was a bustling watering hole in the Capitol, and that night it was filled with election fever. Grover Cleveland had recently been voted in as the new president of the United States along with a new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, a debate was raging at the Willard’s about who would take the position of the new House Speaker. Samuel J. Randall was the favorite, but an upstart southerner named John G. Carlisle was also in the running.

“Betting ran high at the hotels,” the Pittsburgh Dispatch’s author writes of the night, “and during the course of the evening at the old Willard’s, the bar crowded and all sorts of drinks flowing like the fountains of the Muses at Tivoli, Rickey shouted out that he would bet $1,000 to $500 that Carlisle would be nominated by the caucus the following evening and that he would be elected speaker the following Monday.”

It was a fool’s bet, but you can’t blame the man who fell prey to Rickey’s charisma. What he didn’t know is that Rickey had inside information on the bets he took, or as they said at the time, “he had a disagreeable habit of knowing just about what he was betting on.”

Sure enough, Carlisle won, as did Rickey. His win was substantial — $500 to be exact — the equivalent of just over $11,000 today.

“Now we’ll go up to John’s and get the finest dinner that can be cooked east of St. Louis,” Rickey said after gathering his winnings. The finest dinner turned into a boozy breakfast, then lunch, and then another dinner before Rickey and his party finally collapsed in exhaustion.

Shoomaker's

Photo via Library of Congress

“The following morning, after little sleep, we adjourned from the hotel to Shoemaker’s (bar) to brace up, that we might go to ‘The Hill’ and witness the organization of the House and the election of Carlisle,” the Dispatch writes of the day.

Rickey, for all his charisma and all his insider knowledge, was not immune to the impact of a hard hangover. Then again, his insider knowledge included the cure: a fine hair of the dog.

“Gentlemen,” Rickey announced as he and his six-man following gathered around the bar keep, “I’m going to invent a new drink now and here. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I feel that any of the old ones would not be appealing.”

Rickey spotted fresh limes on the bar, and shouted, “Mr. Barkeep, I see you have fresh limes. It is good of you to have them at this season when limes are not supposed to be.”

He had the bartender gently squeeze the lime so only the juice landed in the glass in front of him without “one single drop of the juice of the outer rind.” It was, after all, only the “splendid acid which we need this morning and which can be found only in the lime sublime.”

Then a little crushed ice was added on top. Drizzled over that was the barkeep’s finest bourbon, “just the quantity of whisky you wish to drink,” according to the author. A siphon of carbonated water was then forcefully injected into the mix of bourbon and lime so that the whisky and the juice of the lime were “thoroughly wedded.”

Rickey, in all of his confidence, knew that this, of all his accomplishments, was to be his legacy.

“Now gentlemen,” Rickey proclaimed, “though we have not partaken of this drink, I know it’s going to be something divine, and let us christen it the ‘Rickey,’ as it may be the one thing by which I shall be made immortal. Let each gentleman lift his glass to his lips and his eyes to the heavens and say: ‘We christen thee, O nectar, for all time to be known as the Rickey!’”

Colonel Rickey proved in that statement once again to be a prescient man. What his prophecy did not foretell was that the birth of the Rickey would also be its downfall — the drink that carries his name is no longer made with his cherished Southern spirit but with gin, as the New Yorker who ordered it before Rickey’s very eyes confirmed.

We can only hope that it wasn’t the substitution of spirits that led to Rickey’s untimely demise shortly thereafter. Rickey’s death announcement on April 24, 1903 in The Washington Post revealed a suicide by poison.

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