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Mastering the Gin Rickey with Andra “AJ” Johnson

The D.C. bartender elevates the city's hometown highball with a vibrant, aromatic citrus syrup.

“The Gin Rickey represents Washington, D.C., at its core,” says Andra “AJ” Johnson. “It’s truly Numero Uno in this region.”

Johnson, who has lived in D.C. for 23 years, is the bar director and managing partner at Serenata as well as co-founder of DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) Black Restaurant Week and White Plates, Black Faces, a platform celebrating the region’s Black food and beverage professionals. As a champion of the city’s history, Johnson is understandably enamored of the Gin Rickey, a quenching highball created at Shoomaker’s on a steamy summer day in 1883.

The simple combination of gin, lime and seltzer—aptly described as “air conditioning in a glass” by spirits writer Derek Brown—was constructed by a bartender named George Williamson at the behest of Democratic lobbyist and retired Confederate army colonel Joseph Rickey, a regular who had recently purchased the legendary saloon. The original Rickey called on whiskey for its base, and while many iterations abounded in between, within the decade gin had become the favored base spirit.

As the city’s official cocktail, the Gin Rickey “supersedes the generational drinking habits” typical of D.C., says Johnson. “You can have three family members—say, a grandmother, mother and daughter—walk into a bar, and they’ll all order a Gin Rickey.”

Not all will be the same. As evidenced by D.C.’s annual “Rickey Month” every July, there are countless variations on the drink, from different styles of gin and toppers to riffs made with everything from aquavit to fino sherry. “You should have fun with Gin Rickeys, because they’re so adaptable,” says Johnson. “To me, the best way to do that is with different syrups, like lavender or citrus.” 

For her take on the classic, Johnson calls on an aromatic syrup made with Buddha’s hand citron, basil and makrut lime leaves, the latter of which “give the drink the right mouthfeel,” she says. “Buddha’s hand is bright and floral, but it can be somewhat bitter, so I use lime leaves to offset that; they have an earthy quality and also add a touch of texture to the syrup.” Basil, she adds, “pairs well with the brightness and spice of gin botanicals and adds a bit of savory and saline contrast.” (If you can’t find lime leaves or Buddha’s hand, Johnson’s recipe has a great workaround.) 

To build the drink, Johnson combines two ounces of Green Hat Gin, a local brand that has a strong anise note, with three-quarters to one ounce of fresh lime juice (based on personal preference) in a mixing glass, along with one ounce of citrus-infused simple syrup. She then lightly shakes the drink with ice for five seconds. “Normally I wouldn’t shake a Rickey,” she says, “but if you’re using sugar, a very easy shake helps break down its cellular structure to give you the proper mouthfeel.”

To finish the drink, Johnson strains her Rickey into a Collins glass over a four-by-one-inch Collins cube, the manufacture of which Serenata outsources. “Since this is a carbonated drink, I wanted a certain amount of dilution at the right time,” she says. “The oversized cubes have greater surface area, so they’re slower to melt.” Johnson notes that some D.C. bars with ice programs sell cubes for home use, but you can also find Collins molds online from Cocktail Kingdom.

Traditionally, the Rickey was made with seltzer, but modern renditions take advantage of the ever-expanding range of fizzy and flavored toppers in the marketplace. Johnson uses Q Club Soda for its longevity: “I can open a bottle, cap it, and two days later it’s retained its effervescence and still tastes super clean.”

The Gin Rickey’s versatility is one reason it’s endured: Whether topped with seltzer or soda water, built with London dry gin or New Western, one thing remains undisputed: For over a century the Gin Rickey has maintained its place in D.C.’s cultural lexicon, regardless of party politics. “The Rickey is universally loved here because its ingredients are so readily accessible, but it’s also so easy to modernize,” says Johnson. “It’s a drink that will never go away because of that. It’s just going to carry on, through the generations.”

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