Washington, D.C., can be a complicated city. Between the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and the literal gridlock of a city designed by a 19th-century French-American (thanks, Pierre L’Enfant) the District can sometimes be a difficult place to navigate.
Thankfully, D.C. has a drink that’s decidedly uncomplicated, and you’ve probably met this drink before: the Rickey, a refreshingly cool cocktail tailor-made for the heat and humidity of a mid-Atlantic summer. It’s a homegrown drink that’s so good, the D.C. City Council even proclaimed July as Rickey month.
This drink is said to have been originally conceived in 1883 at Shoomaker’s, a bar that stood at the current site of the JW Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Stop by the hotel bar, and you will find a plaque commemorating the spot where the drink was first fixed by bartender George A. Williamson for Col. Joseph Kyle Rickey, a political mover and shaker.
“It’s a really simple drink,” says Jamie MacBain, a bartender at Daikaya and the president of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild, which helped to establish July as Rickey month. “All you need is club soda, lime and a spirit, and you’re good to go. Traditionally, it’s made with gin or bourbon, but we’re not sure which was the original spirit used.”
If you really want to get in on the Rickey celebration this year, be sure to mark August 2 on your calendar. That’s when dozens of area bartenders will compete in a Rickey cocktail contest held at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, an event run by the bartender’s guild for the past seven years. From the more than 50 recipe submissions received, the field of Rickeys will be narrowed down to 25 finalists, and from there, each drink will be judged for consistency, flavor and creativity.
This year one of the judges tasked with sampling the 25 Rickey varieties will be Lukas Smith. He won the competition last year and gets the honor of serving as a guest judge this year.
That’s not stopping him from putting his own touch on the Rickey. Head to the basement speakeasy Dram & Grain in Adams Morgan, located beneath Jack Rose, and Smith will serve you the Rickey Rucola. It’s a neon green concoction that combines the acidity of lime juice with the peppery flavor of arugula. The drink rotates on and off the menu, but ask for it when Smith is behind the bar, and he’ll do his best to honor your order.
Smith’s take on a Rickey was inspired in part by a friend, the executive chef at Jack Rose, Chef Russell Jones. “Russell has really brought the chef tactics to behind the bar,” Smith says. “He used to bartend at PX [in Alexandria, VA], and he was the inspiration for the drink. His was based off a parsley Rickey, and I played around with it. I used Aviation Gin’s peppery taste and that also called out the pepperiness of the arugula.”
Much of Smith's bar inspiration comes from history. He’s constantly reading books written by sociologists, anthropologists and historians, and he’s been known to dig up recipes from cooks, brewers and even winemakers. He calls the Rickey a definitive D.C. cocktail because it’s the perfect marriage between politics and booze. “Col. Joe Rickey was a lobbyist. He used the bar to get his political friends loaded, and that’s sort of the way that the bar culture and politics came together in this town,” Smith says. “Really, the Rickey embodies the back doors and political favors that is D.C.”
There’s also a bit of chemistry to his drink making. For instance, in the Rickey Rucola, Smith uses lactic acid as a natural preservative for the arugula and lime. “What you get is a fresh and herbaceous taste,” Smith says. “This is an all-natural drink.”
The Rickey that Smith created to win last year’s contest also involved a complex chemical process. Smith juiced sweet potatoes, and then cooked the juice using an enzyme bath. The active enzymes continuously fed yeast while preventing fungal growth. It was “microbiological warfare,” Smith says. After about six weeks of war, the sweet potatoes fully ferment, displaying an array of flavor profiles. “You got everything from the earthiness of a fresh sweet potato to the baked sweet variety,” Smiths says. The final byproduct was used in the winning Supafly Rickey, a gin-based drink with sweet potato soda, lemongrass and rose water.
For the home bartender, Smith’s sweet potato Rickey might be a challenge, but that’s what’s so great about the drink, he says. “It’s completely open to your own creativity.”
When making your own version, just remember a few basics, he says. First, pick your spirit—gin, bourbon or rye. Use the acidity of the citrus; keep the drink more tart than sweet; and be sure to add a carbonated element to top it all off.
For a refreshing and easy take on the Rickey, Smith shares a home version of his Rickey Rucola recipe. If you want to go old school, try the original Rickey recipe written by Col. Rickey that’s been dug up from the archives. Back in 1895, Col. Rickey wrote a handwritten note to the Syracuse Evening Herald, spelling out the simplicity of his cocktail. It goes as follows: “Large glass—Ice. Whiskey or gin. Lime Juice. Carbonated Water. Don’t drink too many.”Just be sure to heed the Colonel’s instructions: “Don’t drink too many.”
The Rickey Rucola
By Lukas Smith, Dram & Grain
For the syrup:
10 ounces water
10 ounces sugar
5 ounces arugula
Buy the freshest arugula possible for the syrup. Blanch it in scalding water, and immediately dunk the green leaves into ice water. Repeat this process 3 times (although our EdibleDC recipe testers just did it once, and it was still a vivid green). This kills the browning enzyme and stops the wilting process.
Then, blend the sugar, water and arugula in a blender on high until the liquid turns bright green (approximately 40–45 seconds). Finely strain the mix before bottling. The syrup will keep refrigerated for about a week.
To make the drink:
1½ ounces Aviation gin
¾ ounce arugula syrup
1 ounce lime juice
Put first 3 ingredients in a glass with ice and top with club soda. Give it a light stir and garnish with a sprig of fresh dill, a cucumber slice and a pinch of salt.
Tim Ebner is a food writer based in Washington, D.C. For food and travel tips, follow him @ebnert on Twitter and Instagram.