It’s summer of 1883 in Washington DC. The air shines and wavers; you can see it, and you can smell it—the horses, the pavement, the flats of the Potomac River. A few blocks from the White House, on a section of E Street known as “Rum Row,” the dive bars are filling up with journalists, lobbyists, and any legislators who haven’t left town. At Shoomaker’s Bar, sometimes described as the “third room of Congress”, George Williamson is mixing drinks. On the other side of his bar stands Joe Rickey—“Colonel” Joe Rickey of Missouri—who is about to become that rarest of all things, a man with an entire category of drinks named after him.

The cold glass Williamson offers to Rickey contains ice, a pour of whiskey, the juice and shell of half a lime, and soda. Rickey has a taste, wipes his grey moustache, then finishes the rest with what F. Scott Fitzgerald would later call “long, greedy swallows.” The drink is a true cooler, and the colonel orders another, and another. Williamson is no fool; he names the drink after his customer, and the “Rickey” is born.

Sort of.

We know who named the drink, and who it was named after; but then, as with so many great cocktails, we still don’t know the truth about how it came to be.

Some say it’s a formula that Rickey himself gave to Williamson; some say it’s an embellishment of Rickey’s standard whiskey and soda; some say it’s a variant of the classic Caribbean rum-and-lime pairing that Williamson was trying out for the first time.

We’ll never know.

We do know that Col. Rickey was a bourbon whiskey drinker, but the Rickey is a style, not a drink, and you could just as easily mix a Rye Whiskey Rickey or Brandy Rickey. The most common modern version is the Gin Rickey.

The Gin Rickey cocktail, photo © 2016 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Gin Rickey

It’s the same drink, of course, with a good gin replacing the Colonel’s favorite bourbon. It’s lighter than the whiskey version, and has the clear, bright look of your genuine summer cooler.

(According to Joe Rickey’s 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.”)


The Gin Rickey

  • 1½ oz Old Tom gin
  • juice and shell of half a lime (about ½ oz fresh juice works well)
  • soda

Build in a highball or Collins glass over ice cubes. Add lime juice and the squeezed shell of half a lime, then the gin, and top with soda.


Old Tom gin would have been the likely ingredient in the 1890s, but the Gin Rickey works perfectly well with a modern, less sweet London Dry.

(At this point we could join the long-running argument about whether you can add sugar to a Rickey and still properly call it a Rickey. I’m not inclined to join that argument, since you can make a Rickey with dry spirits like rye or London Dry gins, or with sweetened spirits like Old Tom gin, or with rum, or even with liqueurs, all of which carry sugary payloads. Each has its own version of sweetness, and each is a legitimate Rickey, so who’s to say you can’t use London Dry gin and sweeten to taste?)

I will say that the idea of the drink is to act as a cooler, and generally speaking, that’s a category that eschews sweetness. I prefer to keep the Rickey as close to tartness as I can stand.

Which brings us to the lime juice. As David Embury reminds us in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, “all true Rickeys are made with limes—never with lemons. Your bartender may substitute lemon juice…but, if he does, the drink is no longer a Rickey.”

And it’s Rickey tradition, by the way, to add the spent half lime shell into the drink. The lime shell affects more than the look of the drink—it adds the oils to the drink, and some of the bright, refreshing bitterness of the pith.

Tall, quick to make, and cool to drink, the Gin Rickey is a welcome respite from the heat.

So here’s to Joe Rickey, and to long, greedy swallows on hot summer days!