The Ramos Gin Fizz is a drink that bartenders love, and love to hate, in equal measure.
The New Orleans-born classic is beloved because its simple mix of gin, citrus, orange blossom water and cream yields a tall, cool dream of a drink: sweet-tart and refreshing, topped with an exquisitely frothy egg-white cap that often towers over the drink like a booze-soaked puff of meringue.
But it takes time and muscle to make one—let alone 50 of them. The instructions as set forth by Henry C. Ramos, who served the drink at his Imperial Cabinet Saloon in the 1880s, dictate that the drink be shaken for several minutes to achieve that ethereal texture. Traditionally, bars handled this by creating bartender relays, with a long line of “shaker men” employed to emulsify the drink. Ramos’s Gin Fizz became so popular that, during the 1915 Carnival season, he had more than 30 shaker men behind the bar. A handful of purists still do it that way.
Although some insist that the original recipe called for a 12-minute marathon of shaking, that’s been debunked; according to Southern Spirits, the amount of time that Ramos had his assistants shake his famous cocktail seems to have increased with each telling, from two to five to ten; most now conclude that five minutes seems like a reasonable middle ground. But even at five minutes, it’s a drink capable of slowing down the entire flow of service on a busy night.
He’s not alone in this sentiment. But rather than give up on the beloved classic, a growing number of bartenders are turning to industrial mechanisms to shake the RGF into glorious decadence.
In New Orleans, the birthplace of the drink, I sat at the bar at Bourbon O and watched an electric gizmo agitate a cocktail shaker for six utterly hypnotic minutes. A 12-minute version is available too, for those who believe that 12 is the magic number, though a bartender assured me that the end result is nearly identical to the six-minute drink.
Back in New York’s West Village, I watched a similar show at the bar at New Orleans-inspired Gentilly, where a bubble tea shaker made in Taiwan has been co-opted to accommodate two silver cocktail tins at a go. There, the drinks are agitated for about two minutes, whether its the classic or the bar’s Mrs. Ramos variation (Ford’s gin, cinnamon and vanilla syrups, lemon, egg white, sea salt and club soda). It’s then crowned with cream by way of an iSi canister.
Others rely on handheld immersion blenders, milkshake spindles or wire whisk balls (often used to blend protein shakes on the go). And despite his protests, even González makes a variation at Suffolk Arms. There, the Strawberry Ramos is made in a blender, with a large chunk of ice to chill and aerate the drink as it blends. The end result is milkshake-thick, so much so that a green-and-white-striped paper straw stands up squarely in the middle of the drink.
But these shortcuts are just the tip of the iceberg. Some engineering-minded types have gone way beyond simple kitchen hacks, though, creating elaborate steampunk-inspired contraptions. One of these visionaries is San Francisco-based sculptor Benjamin Cowden, who, in 2009, created his first cocktail machine, which was designed to mix Corpse Revivers. Shortly thereafter, he was commissioned by Bay Area bartenders Morgan Schick and Eric Quilty to create a device inspired by the Imperial Shaker for a P.T. Barnum-themed pop-up organized by their cocktail consultancy, Jupiter Olympus.
The original design for the device, circa 1803, was tall and vertical, with a crank on the side that animated a piston; the shakers were meant to go up and down, mixing the drink.
“We were thinking about the mechanics, and [the 12-minute shake is] a crappy way to mix a drink,” recalls Schick. “With egg whites, you want to get that volume. [And you need] a circular motion in the ice. If you’re whipping egg whites to make a meringue, you don’t churn them: You whisk them in a circular motion, rather than up and down.”
The version he designed—which is horizontal rather than vertical, so it can sit neatly on a bar top— employs a figure-eight elliptical motion, which Schick likens to “the Japanese hard shake version of an Imperial Shaker.” The device, partly made with gears and other bits that Cowden recovered from old machines, rolled out in 2012, dubbed The Post-Imperial Shaker.
Meanwhile, the Cadillac of shakers likely is the lean, green Imperial Shaker Machine created by Australia-based consultant Jason Crawley based on the same Victorian-era blueprint sent to Cowden. He’s also licensed a couple of versions of the cast-iron apparatus to Diageo’s Tanqueray gin for cocktail events, where it acts mostly as Instagram bait. In July 2015, one was presented to the Museum of the American Cocktail’s New Orleans collection, and, come holiday time, Neiman Marcus even sold a version for home use (priced at $35,000). Tanqueray has also licensed a smaller, more portable version, called The Champion Shaker.
But do you really need a Victorian-era, piston-propelled shaker or a jerry-rigged Taiwanese bubble machine to build a better Ramos Gin Fizz?
“Just go ahead and shake it,” says Schick. “It’s immensely satisfying to shake and shake and shake and end up with this beautifully textured drink.”
We asked a few bartenders and other experts, including Matt Friedlander of Fools Gold, Avery Glasser of Bittermens, Giuseppe González of Suffolk Arms, Morgan Schick of Trick Dog and Troy Sidle of Canvas Bar Design for their tips on how to make the ultimate RGF, without the fancy equipment. Here’s what they said:
- Start with acidulated egg whites. That’s fancy for egg whites with lemon. Make an egg white sour using gin, simple syrup, citrus and orange flower water.
- Dry shake it first. Meaning no ice. Aim for an oval-shaped arc rather than a straight up-and-down shake. The goal is to mix and incorporate as much air as possible. How long? As long as your biceps can stand it. Five to eight minutes is optimal, but just do your best.
- Add ice—but not too much. Add two Kold-Draft ice cubes (or equivalent). Shake until the ice is gone (about one minute; pay attention to when you stop hearing/feeling the ice rattle inside your shaker). Some experts advise using as little ice as possible to chill the drink.
- Add the cream at the end. You don’t want to over-shake it; you’re not trying to make whipped cream or churn it into butter. Five seconds should do the trick.
- Pour it into a tall Collins glass; don’t strain it. You’ve created a lovely, aerated meringue. Now the job is to gently transfer it to the glass without deflating it. Don’t pour it from too high up.
- Top up with soda water. This is optional, but it adds a little extra fizz.