The inventors of most of the cocktails we quaff have been long since forgotten. Given the pleasure we glean from the mixtures themselves, I’ve always taken my own small delight in finding out just a bit about the human progenitors of our refreshments.
With hot, muggy weather around the corner, it is naturally fitting to explore the Rickey, a classic summertime cooler that consists of gin (usually), fresh lime juice and seltzer on the rocks in a highball glass. Every year as the mercury rises, some journalist gives it a customary nod. No wonder; it’s good at what it does, and it comes with a back story, courtesy of Albert Crocket, author of 1931’s Old Waldorf Bar Days. “Colonel Joe” Rickey had one in a Washington, D.C., bar and called for another, whereupon the bartender named the drink for him. But what of the bar? What of the bartender? What of Colonel Joseph Rickey? There is more to this story.
Joe Rickey may be best remembered for his role in the popularization of the Rickey, but he walked with the great men of his era. He was a popular figure, first in Missouri politics and later in the nation’s capital from the 1870s into the new century. A devout Democrat, he successfully campaigned for President Grover Cleveland in 1884 and 1892. He was appointed to the Military Organization Committee of Cleveland’s inauguration. He less successfully stumped for Williams Jennings Bryan in the 1896 election that saw Republican William McKinley elected president. He was said to have lost substantial money betting Republicans on Bryan’s victory. The stakes? Drinks, of course.
He was a regular at a marble palace frequented by political operatives that habitués called Shoo’s, one building up from the National Theatre in Washington. Shoomaker’s was the enterprise of William Shoomaker, who had begun his professional life as a Civil War sutler. The saloon had been thriving there since before the Mexican-American War. All evidence suggests that Rickey himself first conceived his signature drink in the typically hot 1883 summer campaign season. The bartender, George Williamson, prepared it to the colonel’s instructions, and the first one was actually a rye Rickey made with Shoomaker’s own house-label whiskey. Though Colonel Joe remained faithful to his original concoction, in short order gin would eclipse the rye (and inspire a whole family of drinks called Rickeys).
As the Washington Post extolled during the end of the 1894 Democratic convention:
“The convention adjourned along about half past 2 o’clock this morning and from that time until long after daybreak there was great joy everywhere. The favorite joy producers were Rickeys of various makes and of various degrees of strength. There were gin Rickeys and whisky Rickeys and brandy Rickeys and every other kind of Rickey known to mortal man.”
Shoomaker’s, which Joe Rickey bought in the 1890s, served its last Rickey in 1916, when it was razed and replaced by the Munsey office building and quickly occupied by the National Research Council and the Finnish Embassy, among others. Colonel Joe died by suicide in 1903 at 61. He drank a solution of carbolic acid.
Though both the man and the venue are long gone, the drink rises like a thirsty apparition every year about this time to remind us of the humanity behind our libations.