A Tale of Two Rickeys

How a 19th century lobbyist from Missouri and a gin-based highball crossed paths.

The Gin Rickey, a simple highball made with gin, fresh lime, and seltzer carries the surname of its purported originator, Democratic lobbyist Colonel Joseph Karr Rickey. However, the original Rickey featured bourbon, not gin.

Shoomaker’s Bar, birthplace of the Rickey.
(Photo: Library of Congress)
As one story goes, on the morning of December 3, 1883, after a particularly difficult night debating whether or not southern upstart John G. Carlisle would become the new House Speaker under president-elect Grover Cleveland, Col. Joe Rickey chose to beat his hangover with a drink that he was about to invent at Shoomaker’s, a legendary bar on D.C.’s infamous Rum Row.

Bidding the barkeep to put the juice of a fresh lime (not the peel) in a glass, top it with crushed ice, a measure of bourbon, and mix it together with a forceful stream of carbonated water, the bombastic Rickey declared that this drink would be his legacy.

As prompted by the colonel, the attending parties at the bar christened this new drink “Rickey” before heading to “The Hill” to witness the election of Carlisle.

Without explanation (and much to the consternation of the colonel himself), the Rickey morphed from a bourbon eye-opener to a gin highball sometime during the 1890s. Regardless, his namesake drink became so famous throughout the country that the concoction merited an opening line mention in Col. Rickey's April 24, 1904 New York Times obituary.

The Gin Rickey has become D.C.'s native cocktail, and several cocktail bars serve the “original” gin rickey, although the formulation is not at all what the colonel originally ordered. Nowadays, the Gin Rickey is considered a refreshing way to combat our Capitol’s brutal summertime heat. It’s also the perfect indulgence on a deceptively sunny frigid winter day.

Joe Rickey

Serves 1

As a nod to its namesake, this Rickey is made with the colonel’s favorite southern spirit. If your limes are very tart, add sugar: otherwise, skip it. Feel free to use a soda siphon to mix the ingredients as was done in the original Rickey.
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1 barspoon sugar, or to taste, optional
  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • Chilled seltzer
In 10-ounce Collins glass, add lime juice (add optional sugar and stir until dissolved). Fill glass with crushed ice, add bourbon, top with seltzer; stir to combine, if necessary.

Gin Rickey

Serves 1

By the 1890s, gin had replaced bourbon in the Rickey. Modern versions tend to resemble a Gin & Tonic. This one is closer to the original eye opener.
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 ounces London dry gin
  • Chilled seltzer
In 10-ounce Collins glass, stir juice and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Fill glass with crushed ice, add gin, top with seltzer. Stir to combine, if necessary.