Annals of the Bar: Henry Ramos’s Toothsome Gin Fizz
New Orleans is a paradoxical place: a Catholic city, devoted to pleasure; a tourist city, where it’s hard to get a bad meal; a cradle of American mixology, where the most popular drink is a revolting combination of syrups, artificially-flavored liqueurs and neutral spirits that’s served in a plastic hand-grenade.
Thankfully, that’s not the city’s only popular drink. In the better sort of places, you can also get a Sazerac, a simple mix of rye whiskey, sugar, absinthe (or Herbsaint, a local substitute) and the city’s own Peychaud’s Bitters. Indeed, the Sazerac has even been declared the Official Cocktail of New Orleans. There’s only one problem with that: none of the historical claims made for the drink–that it was the first cocktail; that it dates back to the 1830s; that it was characteristic of New Orleans and nowhere else, that it was the exclusive signature drink of the Sazerac Coffee House, on Royal St–are actually verifiable in the historical record as we now understand it.
But that brings us to still another New Orleans paradox, which is that Antoine Amedee Peychaud, an apothecary who never set foot behind the bar, has somehow become the city’s iconic mixologist, while Henry Charles Ramos languishes in semi-obscurity. Anyone who has ever had a properly-made Ramos Gin Fizz will recognize the injustice here.
From 1874, when he stepped behind the mahogany at Eugene Krost’s lager beer saloon on Exchange Alley, just off of Canal Street, until 1919, when Prohibition came and he wielded his shaker for the last time, Ramos was the consummate bartender: dignified, courtly, immensely hard working. What’s more, from the early 1880s, when after running saloons in Baton Rouge and Birmingham he returned home to the Crescent City and opened his famous Imperial Cabinet Saloon on Gravier Street, he was “recognized as the most famous mixologist of the South” (to quote an 1895 article in the New Orleans Times-Democrat).
In part, it was the way he carried himself (“if all the saloon-keepers had been like Mr. Ramos,” the New Orleans Item wrote after his death in 1928, “Prohibition would never have come to pass”). In part, it was his polished hand with a Mint Julep, a Roffignac, a Brandy Crusta and all the other New Orleans classics. But mostly it was his Gin Fizz. But don’t take my word for it; here’s what the (anonymous) man from the Times-Democrat had to say about the experience of securing one from its creator’s hand:
“‘A gin fizz, if you please’ says the customer at the bar of the Imperial Cabinet to the polite, wide-awake, white-aproned bartender.
“Gin fizz, sir,” comes the reply, and forthwith the magic begins passing from this bottle to that; with a wonderfully deft rapidity, the nebulous mixture in a long glass is handed in just one minute and a half to one of the many shaker boys, who do duty as agitators behind the bar. Then for two minutes the delicious concoction is shaken and jousted, the ice tinkling against the glass, the rich cream rising; the delicate color becoming richer. A deft movement, the silver cornucopia [i.e., the shaker tin--DW] is removed, and the fizz in all its toothsome glory stands ready to be sipped in ecstasy by its fortunate purchaser.
What does this wonderful mixed drink taste like? You might as well ask for a description of a Mediterranean sunset-its frothy delicacy-its quaint suggestion of fruit trees and summer odors-its evanescent flavors blending like the hues of the rainbow-its cool, delicious whiteness-its sweet caresses as it wafts like an angel down the joyous throat-all of these are things no person can adequately describe.”
How I envy that man. Fortunately, Henry C. Ramos did humankind one last favor before he took up his station at the Great Saloon On High, and committed his recipe to print. Here it is, verbatim:
“One and Only One
Ramos’ Original Gin Fizz
(1) One tablespoonful powdered [i.e., superfine--DW] sugar.
Three or four drops of Orange Flower Water.
One-half lime (Juice).
One-half lemon (Juice).
[Stir these together before proceeding-DW]
(1) One Jigger of Old Tom Gin. (Old Gordon may be used but a sweet gin is preferable) [I suggest Hayman's or Ransom Old Tom gin, or Plymouth gin-DW].
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).
To those who may have forgotten, a ‘jigger’ is a stemmed sherry glass holding a
little more than one ounce.”
Sweet, fragrant, cool and rich, there’s no more pleasurable drink in existence. I would never diss a Sazerac, or Mr. Peychaud and his excellent bitters. But maybe New Orleans should have two official cocktails; it could handle ‘em.
Photo by Kent Wang
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