|JOHN SHELTON REED||
Mr. Ramos’s Iconic Fizz
John Shelton Reed
Lately I’ve been writing a book for a Louisiana State University Press series called “Iconic Cocktails of New Orleans.” You might ask – I did -- what that adjective means. What makes something or someone “iconic”?
When the New York Times calls Nancy Pelosi “one of the most powerful and iconic women in Washington,” the word seems to mean famous or important or something. But originally, and more usefully, it referred to something or somebody that stands for something else, something bigger. The Cross, the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Arches, the ducktail haircut – all these are iconic. Nancy Pelosi isn’t.
So an iconic cocktail, properly, should not just be well-known or popular; it should be emblematic. It might, for instance, evoke a place, or a scene, or an era. The Mint Julep, the Boilermaker, the Harvey Wallbanger – I’d call those iconic.
Two New Orleans cocktails are particularly so, in this sense. The Sazerac is one. Rye whiskey, sugar, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters (a local brand) -- it was declared the Crescent City’s official cocktail by the Louisiana state legislature in 2008. The splendid Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel sells 35,000–40,000 a year. But in a recent year the bar also filled about 20,000 orders for the drink I’m writing about, the Ramos Gin Fizz, which cocktail historian David Wondrich has suggested really should displace the Sazerac as the city’s official drink. Russ Bergeron, the Roosevelt’s beverage manager and historian, would agree; he thinks that as a brunch eye-opener and all-day pick-me-up, it better represents his city’s easygoing, good-timing culture. Someone once said that the drink is like New Orleans itself: sweet and sour, a thing of froth and fizz, with an aroma of tropical fruit. “To sip a Ramos Fizz on a hot day,” Wondrich writes, “is to step into a sepia-toned world peopled with slim, brown-eyed beauties who smell of magnolias and freshly laundered linen, and tall, mustachioed gentlemen who never seem to work and will kill you if you ask them why.”
The Ramos Fizz does have this antebellum mystique, but it wasn’t actually a drink of the Old South. It was devised by Henry Charles Ramos (pronounced Ray-mus and everyone called him Carl) sometime around 1890 at his bar, the Imperial Cabinet, which was in the unromantic business district of New Orleans, across Canal Street from the French Quarter, and served ordinary New South businessmen, not planters or riverboat gamblers.
Despite a surname that looks Hispanic or Portuguese, Ramos was the son of German immigrants and grew up in New Orleans’s large German community. As a young man he worked initially in beer parlors, then ran his own saloon in Baton Rouge before returning to New Orleans, where he bought the Imperial Cabinet with his brother William. Ramos’s concoction, which he originally called a “New Orleans Fizz,” was an immediate success. After a few years the brothers moved their flourishing enterprise down the street to the grander Stag Saloon, home to the longest bar in the city. Locals called the place simply “Ramos’s.”
As a dedicated Freemason Ramos wasn’t an obvious candidate for a place in cocktail history. Like most Masons at the time he strongly disapproved of drunkenness, and he didn’t tolerate it in his bar. He closed Ramos’s at eight o’clock every evening and only grudgingly opened for two hours on Sunday because his customers begged him to. He seldom drank himself and when Prohibition was enacted in 1919 he shuttered his saloon without complaint and went into business selling “Jin Phizz” brand house paint. It would be a stretch to suggest that he intended his creation to be a temperance drink, but it certainly isn’t easy to get drunk on; it’s so rich that most people will stop at two or three. An unverified story that I really hope is true has it that when the hatchet-wielding “saloon wrecker” Carrie Nation came to New Orleans in 1907 she said that Prohibition wouldn’t be needed if everyone who served liquor was like Mr. Ramos.
The Ramos Fizz was what present-day “mixologists” would call a riff on some existing drinks. Exactly how Ramos drew on them isn’t entirely clear, but his claim to have invented the drink was uncontested. The original recipe was secret until Ramos gave it to a newspaper reporter in 1928, shortly before his death. Here it is, as it was published:
One and Only One
RAMOS ORIGINAL GIN FIZZ
One tablespoon powdered sugar.
Three or four drops of Orange Flower Water.
One-half Lime (Juice).
One-half Lemon (Juice).
One Jigger of Old Tom Gin.
Old Gordon may be used but a sweet gin is preferable.
The white of one egg.
One-half glass of crushed ice.
About 2 tablespoonsful of rich milk or cream.
A little Seltzer water (about an ounce) to make it pungent.
Together well shaken and strained. (drink freely)
The word “ethereal” is often applied to the result. It has been described as “like sipping a flower,” “ginny pillows of orange-blossomed delight,” and “a foamy, alcoholic orange creamsicle.”
Although the Ramos Fizz has won a place on the International Bartender Association’s “Unforgettables” list, bartenders often don’t like it when you order one. Former bartender Aaron Pringle says it is “such a gargantuan pain in the ass you kinda just want to pretend it never existed.” That complex list of ingredients is tricky enough, but the biggest problem is the shaking. The Gourmet’s Guide to New Orleans Creole Cookbook (1933) observed that “the real art in making a Gin Fizz is in proper shaking. Don’t just shake it up a few times and think you have done the job, because it is only started.” Ramos himself said to “shake and shake and shake until there is not a bubble left.” At his bar he reportedly employed some 20 “shaker boys”-- up to 35 at Mardi Gras. One would shake the drink and pass it to the next, who would shake it and pass it on, in turn.
Clearly there was (ahem) a whole lot of shaking going on, but how much has become the stuff of legend. In 1895 a newspaper story said that two minutes’ shaking was standard at Ramos’s, but a 1908 article said five minutes. By 1921, after Prohibition, someone was saying it had been ten minutes. Now you might hear that it was twelve or even twenty minutes. Clearly that’s overdoing it, but I can attest that even two minutes can seem a very long time. It's hard to find a shaker boy these days, but maybe you can get a friend to spell you.
In the cocktail Gilded Age before the Volstead Act, the Ramos Fizz became extraordinarily popular, especially in its native New Orleans. At one point the Stag Saloon was reportedly using 5000 eggs a week. But during Prohibition drinkers wanted something with more of a kick, so most speakeasies served spirits neat or with only the most rudimentary mixers. Elaborate cocktails were also more difficult to conceal in the event of a raid. The Ramos Fizz almost disappeared. After Repeal, though, it came back strong. It’s claimed that Louisiana’s flamboyant governor Huey Long liked the Ramos Fizz at the Sazerac Bar so much so that he had the Airline Highway built so he could get there from Baton Rouge forty minutes faster. Certainly he did take the Sazerac’s head bartender to New York in 1935 to show Yankees at the Hotel New Yorker how to make the drink. (There’s a great video of the scene. Google youtube Huey making a gin fizz.) Soon the New Yorker’s cocktail list offered a Ramos Fizz for 45 cents and bragged that the drink was “Obtainable in New York only at the Hotel New Yorker."
The reputation of the Ramos Fizz spread quickly and it became known as a classy drink. When Humphrey Bogart’s leading lady Lizabeth Scott orders one at the bar in the 1947 film noir “Dead Reckoning,” one movie critic says, it “shorthands that she has taste, experience, and money.” It also shorthanded a hint of decadence, probably acquired by association with New Orleans. It’s no surprise that it was Tennessee Williams’s favorite. (Walker Percy, on the other hand, was a bourbon man. His allergy to egg whites once sent him into anaphylactic shock. He wrote later, “Anybody who monkeys around with gin and egg white deserves what he gets.”)
At mid-century the Ramos Fizz was firmly established in the cocktail equivalent of the Great American Songbook, but that wasn’t enough to ensure its continued popularity. It was never forgotten in New Orleans, but starting around 1970 it went into eclipse everywhere else. All of America’s classic cocktails did. David Wondrich argues that this was part of a more general rejection of tradition, as the values of the 1960s counterculture were assimilated by mainstream America. Many young people rejected their parents’ alcohol buzz and got their kicks from marijuana and psychedelics. Those who did imbibe turned to sweet, colorful, insipid drinks, often with naughty names. A collective failure of taste led to things like disco and the Fuzzy Navel.
After the Ramos Fizz had risen and fallen, risen and fallen again, it was obvious what was coming next, and, sure enough, the turn of the century saw a “craft cocktail renaissance.” You say Baby Boomers rejected their parents’ Martinis and Old Fashioneds? Well, Gen X bartenders scorned the Boomers’ Appletinis and Long Island Iced Tea. They revived the classics from pre-Prohibition bar books, used fresh juices and sought out obscure brands, even made their own bitters (and charged double-digit prices). The result was worth all the tattoos, suspenders, and vintage facial hair. All craft bartenders knew how to make an Ramos Fizz.
This revival was initially a phenomenon of the big cities of the American North and West. (New Orleans just kept doing pretty much what it had done all along.) But it soon went international; with a recent, cursory internet trawl I found the Ramos Fizz on a dozen bar menus in the United Kingdom, a half-dozen in Australia, two in Singapore, and one each in Dublin, Paris, Saigon, Seoul, Taipei, Bangalore, Badung (Indonesia), Phuket (Thailand), and Nitra (Slovakia).
The drink’s nine ingredients can all be messed with, singly or in combination, and you can always just add one or two more, so recent years have seen scores of riffs on Carl Ramos’s original. There are now even vegan and non-alcoholic versions (don’t ask). I guess mixologists gotta mix, but in my opinion, it’s hard to improve on the original “Cadillac of Cocktails.” Check it out.
But be prepared. The days of the forty-five cent Ramos Fizz are gone. At the Sazerac Bar one will set you back $24.00.
John Shelton Reed is the author of Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s.