This is the first of what I hope will be many blogs showcasing vintage cocktail menus, fabled old venues, classic old drinks and the great old drinkers. Today I’ll look at a couple of vintage menus from the old Roosevelt Hotel New Orleans. One, resembling the Ramos Gin Fizz itself, is dated 1951, while the “Bar… Suggestions” menu is likely pre-WWII. A Ramos Gin Fizz for 30 cents! A Martini for 25 cents! If there were ever a good reason to perfect time travel, this is it.
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. This classic drink is tailor made for sipping on those easy summertime days – it comes from sub-tropical New Orleans, after all - e-a-s-y, as long as someone else is makin’‘em, that is. In truth, the Ramos Gin Fizz is worth every minute of building and shaking that goes into one. Minutes? Yep, according to Stanley Clisby Arthur’s 1936 book, “Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Make ‘Em,” the Ramos “needs a long, steady shaking...until the mixture gets body - ‘ropy’ as some experienced bartenders express it.”
What’s “ropy?” To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, I can’t define it, but having made many Ramos Gin Fizzes, I know it when I see it (apologies are offered to my former law professors at Loyola New Orleans, but I’m sure they understand).
The Ramos was invented by a guy named, you guessed it, Ramos (RAH-mose). In 1888, Henry Ramos (his friends called him Carl) purchased a New Orleans saloon called the Imperial Cabinet, where the drink was likely born. In 1907, Henry moved to another New Orleans bar, the Stag, on Gravier near St. Charles. The drink became so popular that during the 1915 Mardi Gras, the Stag employed 35 “shaker boys” behind the bar. If a shaker boy tired, he’d toss his shaker to the one behind him to carry on. Whole lotta shakin,’ indeed.
Prohibition came in 1919, and the honorable Henry Ramos closed his bar, unlike most Orleanians, who scoffed at the Volstead Act. Indeed, New Orleans held a dubious distinction in the eyes of Prohibition agent extraordinaire Izzy Einstein. Einstein traveled the country searching for speakeasies and other scofflaws, and would record the time it took for him to procure illegal hooch. In D.C., it took an hour; in Atlanta, 17 minutes; and in Pittsburgh, it took only 11. In New Orleans? 35 seconds. Izzy got off the train, hopped in a cab, asked where he could get a drink, and the obliging cabbie produced a flask. You see, New Orleans’ legendary status in the hospitality field is not a recent invention, it’s hard-wired.
Henry Ramos died in 1928; the Noble Experiment still had another 5 years to run. But while he closed his saloon, he published his secret recipe, as a gift to the ages, or perhaps his own method of civil disobedience? So, when Prohibition ended in 1933, New Orleans’ bartenders knew how to make the previously proprietary drink. Which brings us to the Roosevelt.
The Ramos Gin Fizz was one of several “house” drinks at the old Roosevelt Hotel Bar in New Orleans back in the day. The Roosevelt made a practice of “adopting” great old New Orleans drinks that had lost their home, another example being the Sazerac (invented by my ancestor Antoine Peychaud in his pharmacy, probably in the 1850s, and perfected at the Sazerac House in the 1870s). The hotel, originally called the Grunewald, opened in 1893, and featured a subterranean-motif nightclub called “The Cave” (quite possibly America’s first nightclub). It became The Roosevelt (named for Teddy) around the time of WWI and in 1965, the Fairmont New Orleans (One of many Katrina casualties, it is currently closed).
While the Ramos does contain quite a few ingredients, they’re standard: lemon juice, lime juice, cream, gin, egg white, sugar, seltzer. And then there’s orange flower water, easily available at Amazon.com, among other places. The orange flower water offers a floral bouquet not unlike that found in a glass of viognier wine. Indeed, its inclusion in a Ramos has prompted the classic line, “It’s like drinking a flower!” Whether or not you add vanilla extract is up to you - Orleanian bartenders have long debated the use of “the twin drops of extract wrung from the heart of the vanilla bean,” as Arthur called it. Like the issue of shaking or stirring a Martini, or crushing or merely bruising the mint in a julep, this is yet another controversy in the hornet’s nest that is mixology.
The Louisiana Kingfish
Make a Ramos Gin Fizz and understand why the drink became the obsession of the Louisiana Kingfish, Senator Huey Long. Huey loved to drink, but trouble often found him when he did. One evening in 1933, Huey was out with friends at the Sands Point Casino night club on Long Island. With several Sazeracs under his belt, Huey made a spectacle of himself, eating food off other patrons’ plates, dragging women out on to the dance floor, and generally behaving like a dog. During a visit to the men’s room, unable to find an empty urinal, Huey proceeded to take aim between the legs of one of the men standing before him. His aim was not the best, and it netted Huey a cut above his eye seen in photos that graced the tabloid newspapers for days. So, in hopes of improving his image for the Presidential election of 1936, Huey decided to go “on the water wagon.” But he fell off that wagon during a trip to New York in July, 1935, and it was the Ramos Gin Fizz that prompted the fall.
Huey stayed as he always did at the New Yorker Hotel. Announcing that he wasn’t able to find a decent Ramos Gin Fizz in the city, he arranged to have the Roosevelt’s bartender, Sam Guarino, flown up to New York, to teach the New Yorker’s bar staff. Of course, Huey required a quality control inspection. He sipped it, his first drink in nearly two years, and then ordered another. “Huey wanted that drink so damn bad,” said one of his bodyguards. “I’m merely sampling this to make sure you gentlemen are getting the real thing.” Two hours and five drinks later, Huey solemnly proclaimed, “And this, gentlemen, my gift to New York.”
(This is part one of a two part blog on the Ramos Gin Fizz. More later this week. Phil Greene will present a seminar on the Ramos at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans July 19-23. Visit the Museum of the American Cocktail on the web.)