The Mystery of the Gin Fizz Solved at Tales of the Cocktail

Updated, see below.

So a while back, while researching the Roosevelt Hotel’s opening, I couldn’t help noticing all the references to the Ramos Gin Fizz, along with the Sazerac (at the Sazerac Bar) it’s the hotel’s signature drink. The Ramos Gin Fizz was the favorite drink of Governor Huey Long, famous rogue politician who, they say, built Airline Highway so he would have a straight shot from the capital at Baton Rouge to the front door of the Roosevelt. Huey gained fame in the cocktail world by bringing the Roosevelt’s bartender with him when he visited New York City, to show those big city boys how to properly mix the drink.

If you’re not familiar with the Ramos Gin Fizz, it’s kind of an oddball cocktail for modern times, recipes call for the white of one egg. It’s other characteristic is a few drops of orange flower water, another obscure flavoring agent. Gin, of course, sugar or simple syrup and cream and/or milk round out the ingredients. It’s shaken vigorously, some say for 10 minutes, to a frothy consistancy, most recipes call for a splash of soda water or seltzer. Some recipes call for vanilla, in fact, I read somewhere that it’s the vanilla (see update, below) that makes a Ramos Gin Fizz different from a plain-old gin fizz. Prior to Ramos, the egg white version of the gin fizz was known as a Silver Fizz; one with an egg yolk was called a Golden Fizz.

So what’s the mystery? The mystery is that I looked at the Wiki for the gin fizz, which, as the Wiki is wont to do, contains some shaky information. It said Henry Ramos invented the Ramos Gin Fizz in 1888. It also said the first written reference to the gin fizz was in the 1886 edition of Jerry Thomas’ bartender’s book and that, back in the day, “fizz” was spelled “fiz,” with one “z”.

Trying to track down another idea (I don’t remember what now) I came across Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole, one of the earliest cookbooks dedicated to New Orleans cookery. The 1901 second edition is online in Googlebooks, there are some drink recipes in the back. Sure enough, with one “z,” is a recipe for a Gin Fiz that’s quite similar to the modern gin fizz, Ramos or otherwise.

So, I knew from a prior exhibit that the Historic New Orleans Collection had a first edition, from 1885, of the Hearn book. If that recipe was in there, the Wiki was wrong and the first written documentation of the gin fizz was not in the Thomas book in 1886 but in Hearn’s 1885 book. I headed to the Collection to find out. They pulled the 1885 book, I flipped to the back, and there it was, a recipe for a Gin Fizz, yes, fizz with TWO “Zs!”

My next quest was to track down earlier versions of the Thomas book. The Collection didn’t have any. Liz Williams, director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and the Museum of the American Cocktail, said they didn’t have any either, but was kind enough to give me the names of some experts (author/historian Ted Haigh and local bar chef/collector Chris McMillian) to contact.

How does Tales of the Cocktail fit in? I had put my research on hold, hoping to talk to some of the historians and authors coming to the event. At the book area in the lobby I picked up a copy of David Wondrich’s book Imbibe!, located gin fizz in the index, turned to the page, and was devastated. He says the Silver Fizz was discussed in the Chicago Tribune in 1883, blowing my Hearn-as-first-documenting-the-gin-fizz theory out of the water. But there’s still the question of the “z’s”–one or two and when did it change? Wondrich is wandering around Tales; I’ll accost him at the first opportunity and find out.

Meanwhile, here’s my recipe. I fooled around with one I found on the internet and added some non-traditional, but NOLA elements–absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters. It’s called “The Ender” after an artist that was helping with a new project.

Use a shot glass for a measure

½ shot glass lemon & lime juice mixture (about a ¼ of a lemon and 1/3 of a lime)

12 drops orange flower water*

4 or 5 shakes Regan’s Orange Bitters

2 shakes Peychaud (do NOT use more—better to skip than use more)

3 or 4 drops vanilla

1 teaspoon simple syrup (or use sugar)

1 shot egg white (I used pasteurized whites that come in a carton)

3 shots 2% milk

1 shot gin

½ shot absinthe

Put in shaker without ice. Shake for a minute or two to get things frothy. Add ice—I used 4 regular ice tray cubes, try 4 of what your freezer makes or a half or ¾ cup crushed ice. Shake for a few minutes more until the ice mostly melts and you can hear it getting frothier.

Strain and pour and be amazed. Should be cold enough you won’t need ice in glass.

* A lot more than most recipes call for. I think the absinthe offsets it.

Update: Now that things are returning to normal I’ve had some time to spend with Wondrich’s book, the full title of which is Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar .

Wondrich notes that Ramos’ innovation was his addition of cream to the basic Silver Fizz recipe and says that although either egg white or cream may be made frothy quite easily, mixing the two makes neither want to form a foam. Thus the urban-legend quality of reports that Ramos had his “shaker boys” shake the concoction for up to 15 minutes at a time. There’s also no vanilla in the recipe Ramos gave the local paper that Wondrich reproduced.

I’ve found, as someone somewhere else on the internets stated (I’d give credit if I could remember), that shaking for the amount of time it takes for the commercial break to be over on the TV should be sufficient.

Wondrich was signing books at Tales on Thursday, I had him sign mine and gave him a brief run down of my quest. I forgot to ask him what, exactly, is up with the “z”s. Updates as new info is gathered.

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