The Story Behind the Rickey, D.C’s “Native Cocktail”

Shoomaker’s, the home of the Rickey, in 1917. Image via

Find a highball glass. Take a lime, cut it in half. Squeeze a half into the glass, then drop in the shell. Add a dose of dry gin or rye whiskey, then top with soda water and stir.

You’ve just made a “Rickey”—circa-1880-style—the drink that last year became by ordinance of the city government D.C.’s native cocktail.

“We’re one of two cities that has named an official cocktail,” says Garrett Peck, a local historian who was instrumental in the process. “New Orleans is the other. Do you know what drink is theirs?”

The Hurricane, obviously.

“No, it was actually the Sazerac,” says Peck, “since the Hurricane was actually created in Wisconsin.”

It was behind the bar of a saloon called Shoomaker’s  on what is now Pennsylvania Avenue that the Rickey was created some 130 years ago. Called “Rum Row,” the stretch of the city that was home to Shoomaker’s is believed to be the highest concentration of bars that this country has ever seen.

“It was called ‘the walk of magnificent distances,’ because you could walk all the way home going from drink to drink to drink,” says Derek Brown, co-owner of a D.C. duo of craft cocktail bars, the Passenger and Columbia Room. “Shoomaker’s, though, was the star.”

According to the research compiled by Peck and Brown, the owner of Shoomaker’s in the early 1880s was Colonel Joe Rickey, a democratic lobbyist from Missouri. One day his bartender, George A. Williamson, prepared a Rickey cocktail and named it after his boss.

“Apparently, Joe Rickey didn’t appreciate it, but it stuck, and went nationwide and even globally within a few years,” says Peck. “It was also known as ‘air-conditioning in a glass.”

Last June, Brown, who founded the D.C. Craft Bartenders’ Guild in 2007, set out with Peck to get a native cocktail declaration from the government. Within three weeks—and with the help of Councilmember Jack Evans—the Rickey’s history was honored at a ceremony instating the cocktail as D.C’s own.

“We had a standing room-only event at the J.W. Marriott, which now occupies the site where Shoomaker’s once stood,” says Peck. Called 1331, the hotel’s bar is named for the infamous saloon’s address.

Though the cocktail is indeed refreshing, it’s the Rickey’s history—and that of man that created it—that holds meaning for Peck and Brown.

“Williamson was known for being exceedingly kind, and for having a hand in every major political decision. People would always come and talk to him because he was such a reasoned person,” says Brown. “He obviously exhbitied a great care for  about what a bartender should be—a kind person who treats everyone well.”

For the past five years, the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild has been holding a “Rickey Month” each summer, which culminates in a Rickey-making competition. Members of the guild whip up new iterations of the classic cocktail, and a winner is announced at a grand finale party. This year’s party is set for August 5 at Jack Rose Saloon in Adams Morgan.

“We actually have a history here of making some pretty damn good drinks,” says Peck. “This proves it.”

Admission to the Rickey party is $10, and advance tickets are required. For a list of the competition’s finalists, check out Washington Post’s list here. 


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