Seersucker Social: Politicos, Historians, Boozers Honor the Rickey, D.C.’s Native Cocktail
Derek Brown, arguably D.C.’s booziest historian, showed up last night to the J.W. Marriott's 1331 Bar & Lounge decked out in a blue-and-white seersucker suit. The summery ensemble matched the event—the dedication of a plaque commemorating the birthplace of the rickey, a hot-weather staple and D.C.’s native cocktail.
Allegedly invented at the behest of a bawdy lobbyist named Col. Joseph Kyle Rickey, the first rickey was mixed by bartender George A. Williamson at a dirty, cobwebbed bar called Shoomaker’s. In an age before air conditioning, D.C.’s muggy summers were made a bit less brutal by glasses of bourbon or gin with seltzer and half a squeezed lime.
A simple drink with a storied history, the rickey has become a crusade of sorts for Brown, the brains behind the Passenger, the Columbia Room and countless cocktail programs across the District.
For the last four years, Brown and his colleagues at the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild (of which he’s is a founding member) have celebrated July as "Rickey Month." But now, things are official. Only a month ago, Brown brought the issue to the attention of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who, in turn, added the drink to the city’s list of official symbols last week.
1331 Bar & Lounge stands where the old Shoomaker’s once did, a fact Brown revels in. He spent the last week training its bartenders on the art of making a proper rickey. “It is amazing that right now we are drinking the rickey in the place it was created,” Brown noted during the plaque's unveiling. “The rickey belongs to D.C. It belongs to all of us.”
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton showed up for the official dedication, which she conducted with drink in hand. “This is more than a government town,” she said, adding that in despite of all the things that D.C. does not have— voting rights, anyone?—“today we’re defining ourselves by what we’re pleased to have.”
Like all drinks of legend, the Rickey’s story has some holes. Colonel Rickey may not have actually invented the drink. George Rothwell Brown, author of Washington: A Not Too Serious History, points to an unknown stranger from the West Indies as the true innovator. By some accounts, Colonel Rickey wasn’t a big fan of the drink and resented his association with it, altogether. In a 1901 article in the Wellsboro Gazette, the colonel unloaded his frustration:
“I was Col. Rickey, of Missouri, the friend of senators, judges and statesmen and something of an authority on political matters and political movements... But am I ever spoken of for those reasons? I fear not. No, I am known to fame as the author of the 'Rickey', and I have to be satisfied with that. There is one consolation in the fact that there are fashions in drinks. The present popularity of the Scotch high ball may possibly lose me my reputation and restore me my former fame. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished for."
Regardless of Rickey's actual like or dislike of the drink, it still became wildly popular. Its original character, however, has become muddled over the years. The original base spirit, bourbon, the colonel’s favorite, has been surpassed by gin in popularity, and many more variations exist today. In fact, the D.C. Bartenders Guild holds a yearly party featuring more than a few. At this year’s event, which takes place on Aug. 1, more than 2o bars and restaurants will serve up their own versions of the historic libation, with add-on ingredients ranging from hibiscus to rosemary to coconut.
Expect to see some seersuckers there, too. At 1331, Brown wasn’t the only blue-and-white-clad imbiber in attendance. Eric Felten, a former Wall Street Journal writer who won a James Beard Award for his drinks column, was sporting the breezy fabric as well. “Seersucker is the sartorial equivalent of the gin rickey,” he said. The outfit, like the drink, is all about staying cool—a distinctly Washingtonian pastime.
Photos by Rachel Tepper