Monday, January 12, 2009

Col. Joseph Rickey--Did he or Didn't He?

July of 2008 was declared Rickie Month by the DC Craft Bartenders Guild, which held a month-long challenge among its members for the best Rickie recipe. The winner was Justin Guthrie of Pennsylvania Avenue’s Central Michel Richard Restaurant, who added black pepper syrup to the traditional mix of gin or bourbon, lime juice and soda water.

Well, the drink may have thrilled the judges, but Colonel Joseph Kyle Rickey would have rolled in his grave to see what had become of the drink he is said to have invented. He was a confirmed bourbon man who insisted his favorite libation (Belle of Nelson) be served to him in a thin-stemmed glass, with chunks of ice and enough Apollaris to make up a highball—all at a cost of only 25 cents.

But first, a little history:
Born in 1842, Rickey grew up in the town of Keokuk, Lee County, Missouri. Until 1837, the sole inhabitants of the area were members of the Sauk and Fox tribes. In 1837, the tribes agreed to a treaty that allowed limited settlement of white farmers. Shortly thereafter, white settlers began to migrate into the area. In a second treaty in 1842, the Fox and Sauk tribes were forced to move further west. Whites began camping along the county border a month before the treaty went into effect. At one minute after midnight on May 1, anxious settlers rushed in to stake their land claims. By the beginning of the Civil War, Keokuk was home to a population of approximately 13,000 people.
The 1860 Census of Keokuk, Lee County, Iowa shows him to be an 18-year-old law student. A year later, he ran away from home and enlisted in the 2nd Iowa infantry on May 4, 1861. The infantry, Company B., was mustered on May 27, 1861, and under the leadership of Colonel Samuel R. Davis, was charged with taking military control of the lines of the Hannibal and St. Joseph and North Missouri Railroads.
Rickey was discharged from service on Nov. 29, 1861 at Benton Barracks, Missouri. By 1870, he was living in Fulton, Calloway County, Missouri, listed as a 21-year old land agent, married to Sallie Howard, who was a pupil at the convent where his sister studied, according to his New York Times obituary. At the age of 21, he is listed At the start of the Civil War, he ran away to enlist. He later studied law and, by 1880, was living and practicing in Fulton County, Missouri.
At some point, he operated a brokerage business along with his son-in-law, Robert Spencer, under the name Rickey and Spencer. According to the New York Times, he was a avid enthusiast of horse races and poker, with an interest in mineral water—a component of what would become the “Rickey.”
It isn’t known exactly when Rickey arrived in Washington—but from at least the mid-to-late 1880’s, this colorful Democrat was a prominent lobbyist, known as much for his capacity for drink as his political work. For years, he—was a regular at Hertzog & Shoomaker’s, a saloon had been opened in the 1850’s by two German-born army officers who had served in the Civil War—namely, R.H. Otto Hertzog and William Shoomaker.
The bar was located a block off Pennsylvania Avenue, at 1311 E Street, NW. Because of its vicinity to the Washington Post and other newspaper outlets, it was a favorite of the city’s newspapermen, as well as the likes of Former Speaker of the House Joe Cannon, congressmen and senators, justices, cabinet members and the military elite. It was a place, wrote “Elbert Hubbard” in a pamphlet called “A Little Journey to Shoomakers,” (1909) “where big men who carry big burdens play to the gallery of their own cosmic selves.”

This was no genteel establishment, but a “dive.” The building was not only worn-down, but a downright eyesore, riddled by the dust and cobwebs of the ages. It comprised two rooms, front and back: The front was stacked with wine crates and kegs, which Shoomaker sold to individuals and restaurants. The back room held a wide bar which ran the length of the room under a low ceiling affixed with dusty gas lamps. In the middle of the floor sat a coal stove, and to the side, several oak tables and wooden chairs. It lacked even the basic amenities, such as spittoons. The roughest patrons spat their tobacco on the floor, while the better classes would open the stove door and spit directly into the fire.

The enduring legend has it that Rickey strolled into Shoomaker’s one hot summer morning and threw together the ingredients of the drink that would make him famous.

However, the truth may Rickey didn’t invent the drink at all. According to George Rothwell Brown (Washington: A Not Too Serious History, Baltimore: Norman Publishing, 1930), it was a visiting stranger from the Indies.

Here is Brown’s account:

By August of 1883, both Hertzog and his partner Shoomaker were dead, and the bar was slated to close. Col. Rickey was so devastated that he purchased the place himself, installing George Williamson and Gus Noack as managers.

One summer afternoon, an unknown stranger visiting from the Caribbean walked into Shoomaker’s and asked Williamson for a rye whiskey. He pulled a lime from several he was carrying in his pocket, proceeding to squeeze it into his drink, in a manner he said was popular in the islands. On departing, says Brown, he left several limes on the bar.

When Ricky arrived the next morning for his “eye-opener,” Williamson suggested to him that he try a little lime juice to his regular bourbon. Rickey was delighted with the taste and later invited his friends, Cincinnati Gazette correspondent Frederick Mussey and and Charles Towle of the Boston Traveller, to sample the concoction. It was agreed all around that the lime juice was a “happy thought,” and the drink was officially born.

The following day, Mussey returned to Shoomakers and ordered one of those “Joe Rickey” drinks, and in no time at all, “Rickeys” were being concocted all over Washington D.C. and beyond, with much experimentation and modifications. When Rickey eventually moved to New York, he took the recipe with him.

Interestingly, according to the “Craft of the Cocktail,” by Dale DeGroff, Rickey later went on to become one of the first importers of the limes.


Rickey and his wife Sallie had at least three children: Alby Prather (named after the Civil War Colonel “Gus” Prather, a crony), Natalie Kyle and William Hyde (named after Civil War Colonel William Hyde) Rickey.

In later life, Rickey moved to New York City, where he lived at 24 West 25th Street. Rickey died on April 23, 1903. His family were convinced he had committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid; the coroner found small traces in his stomach and concluded that Rickey had added a small amount to a glass of whiskey.

A day earlier, while out on a stroll along 25th Street to the corner at Broadway, where he clutched his heart and was escorted home by a passing police officer.

Shoomaker's remained in business right up until Prohibition forced its doors to shut. George Williamson was tending bar right up until the end.

©Cecily Hilleary, 2009
Photo: Shoomaker's, ca. 1946, National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)


Isaac Washington said...

This is great! I've been doing a little research myself (as a member of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild) and I recognize the original "Rickey", in a sense, was Belle of Nelson Bourbon(?), Appolonaris water and ice. A bourbon highball, no less. Yet it has taken on a life of it's own. I would love to talk to you about your research. My email is

KesTeR said...

We are running a story in this in 'in the Mix' magazine. Any chance you have a larger version of the photo?


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