Thursday, September 12, 2013

Joe Rickey Gave His Name to the Cocktail, But Who Was He?

“Colonel” Joseph K. Rickey, after whom the Gin Rickey was named, became a well-known Washington lobbyist and eventually the owner of the National Capitol’s most famous saloon,  but myths and contradictions in biographies leave many questions unanswered about this flamboyant figure.

Even Rickey’s birthplace and full name are unclear.  According to a family website, he was the fourth son in a family of 13 children born in Pennsylvania to Dr. Joseph Rickey and Elizabeth McCleary, an immigrant from County Cork Ireland.   The family history puts his 1842 birthplace as Keokuk, Iowa, but his front page obituary in the New York Times said he was born in a small town in Wisconsin and only years later did the family move to Keokuk.  The “K” in his middle name variously has  been given as Kyle,  Kerr, and Karr.

The several accounts of Rickey’s life also differ on where he spent his early life.  His obituary stated that the family moved to Fulton, Missouri, near St. Louis, when he was a young man.  A family history suggests that early on he was gambling on riverboats plying the Mississippi river.  Another account has him as a law student in Iowa.  While there is agreement that he served as a soldier in the
National Theater, Shoomaker's at far right
Civil War,  there is disagreement on which side.  One history has him as a private in the 2nd Iowa Infantry.  Other accounts have him joining the Southern cause.   According to family legend, although his father and two brothers served in the Union Army,  Joe Rickey stepped off a side-wheeler somewhere in the South and joined the Confederacy.

There is unanimity that sometime during the Civil War,  he met a Miss Sallie Howard, who was attending school at a Missouri convent where his sister was a fellow student.   They were married soon after the end of the war and had five children.  Rickey’s subsequent occupations seemed to have been gambling, operating a brokerage business and lobbying the State Legislature in Jefferson City, the Missouri capital.  From a Rickey family member:  Cousin Joe soon found that silently guiding the destinies of legislatures was not an unpleasant business, and could be pleasantly lucrative. The main thing was to know the men who controlled the votes. This meant eating, drinking, laughing, and gambling with them; all things that suited his fancy and in which he excelled. Politicians, like most other people, liked a good story, and Joe already had a reputation as a fluent raconteur.

Recognizing his own superior talents as a lobbyist, Rickey determined to take them to the Nation’s biggest stage, Washington, D.C.  He apparently came during the early-1880’s bearing the title “Colonel,”  a rank he did not achieve in the Civil War but apparently bestowed because of some work done on the staff of the Governor of Missouri.  Among his clients were Western silver interests.  Before long Rickey was as popular in Washington, D.C. as he had been in Missouri.  His favorite “watering hole” was Shoomaker’s Saloon.  It was located a few doors from the National Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue,  a
Elbert Hubbard on Shoomakers
fixture on the city’s notorious “Rum Row.”

Journalist Raymond Clapper described the saloon:  “There was no more disreputable looking bar in town.  The place was never dusted. Cats crawled over the rubbish.  A stale smell of beer greeted customers at the door.  The dingy walls were hung with faded cartoons and yellowed newspaper clippings.”  Nevertheless, it was the place where senators, congressmen, Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, generals, newsmen, and other Washington power brokers met regularly.  Author and philosopher Elbert Hubbard wrote a fancy monograph on the experience of having a drink there.

Thus it was natural when Shoomaker’s came up for sale about 1883, that Joe Rickey would buy the place and hang out there as the genial host.  Although stories differ widely as they do for many events dealing with this character, evidence suggests that Rickey himself first conceived his signature drink in the typically hot, DC summer season.  The bartender, George Williamson, prepared it to the
One half pint flask
Colonel’s instructions, and the first “Rickey” was a rye cocktail made with Shoomaker’s own house brand whiskey.  That same rye was sold “over the bar” in embossed flasks, both half pint and pint.  Note in the label close-up shown here that the saloon is jokingly referred to as “Shoomaker’s Famous Resort.”  It was estimated that the profits from the saloon were not less than $50,000 a year, at least 10 times that in today’s dollar.

Very soon, gin would eclipse rye as the favored liquor for the cocktail and the Gin Rickey was born, a concoction that spawned a myriad of cocktails called “Rickeys”.  Before long Colonel Joe publicly disavowed that he had invented the gin drink connected with his name.  In an interview published in the New York Telegraph, he was quoted to say:  “The drink named after me was always made by the experts in Shoomaker’s from limes thereafter, and soon became popular. Washington during a session of Congress, is filled with people from all parts of the country....Only here in New York was it perverted and made a thing of shame. Here they make it with gin, which is a liquor no gentleman could ever bring himself to drink. In fact, the gin rickey is about the only kind known in this city and the average barkeeper looks surprised if you ask him for one made with rye whisky.”

Despite this extensive disclaimer about the gin rickey,  in 1899 Joe applied for, and was granted,  the trademark for the name Rickey on both the whiskey cocktail, and despite his ragings, the gin.  The trademark included a picture of Rickey and his autograph,  as shown here earlier.  It clearly was the Colonel’s effort to capitalize on the cocktails using his name.  By this time he also had moved to New York at 24 West Twenty-fifth Street.

As in the new century arrived,  Rickey, now in his 60s, was in increasingly bad health.  His doctors advised him to stay indoor.  Ever the gregarious bon vivant,  he insisted on a daily walk on Broadway and became a familiar figure in its top hotels.   According to the New York Times, on April 23, 1903:  “...He started for a walk, visited the Hoffman House and was standing at the corner of Broadway and Twenty-fifth Street watching the crowd. Suddenly he reeled and clasped one hand to his breast. Policeman Riordan ran to his assistance and escorted him home.  He died soon afterwards.  It is said he had been despondent recently.”

That last sentence related to the findings of the New York City’s Coroner’s Office that Rickey had committed suicide.  The coroner after an autopsy stated that he had found a small amount of carbonic acid in Rickey’s stomach.  He concluded that the deceased had taken the acid with whiskey.  Because of the condition of Rickey’s heart, the combination had been enough to kill him.  Although the family objected strenuously to the diagnosis that Rickey had taken his own life, the verdict was never reversed.  His body was returned from New York City to Fulton, Missouri, for burial.  Even in death Rickey left key questions unanswered.

Shoomaker’s survived Rickey’s demise.  When the Colonel purchased the saloon he hired as managers Bartender Williamson and August W. Noack Jr.  After his death they bought the place from his estate.   Williamson and Noack apparently moved the establishment to a location close by at 1331-1333 E. Street N.W. or, as one observer has suggested, the saloon stayed but the address was altered by the city.  Some Shoomaker’s flasks bear the E Street address.  While keeping the original name, the partners had a new emphasis:  wine, champagne and cigars.  They also sold whiskey, advertising in both Washington’s establishment newspapers and “Negro” press. With the approach of National Prohibition, they closed down the business and the Shoomaker saloon came part of DC history.

As for Joe Rickey,  an eloquent tribute came from Al Smith, future governor of New York and later a Presidential candidate.  Smith told the Times:  “He was the soul of honor.  He was square as a die, and if you were his friend you could command his last dollar.  He has given away a fortune to those he deemed in need.”   Perhaps an even more apt  memorial came from a Midwestern newspaper:  "And as long as there is thirst and limes, or lemons and gin, so long will the Honorable Joe Rickey be remembered in Missouri and his famous beverage tickle the palates of discriminating citizens."

Note:  The gin rickey is the official cocktail of Washington, D.C., by order of the City Council.
The recipe:  Into a tall glass, 1.5 oz. of gin, .5 oz of fresh lime juice, soda water  Garnish with lime wedge and/or sprig of mint.  Drink slowly and remember the mystery man who gave it his name.


  1. The interesting things that come up when you google an ancestor. Thank you for this insight into my great grandfather August W Noack, Jr. :)

  2. Julie: I wish I knew more about your ancestor. He probably had a lot of good stories to tell about Rickey and the Shoomaker Saloon.