Yesterday's New York Times Magazine's "Recipe Redux" column showcased one of my very favorite drinks, the Ramos Gin Fizz.
Alas, Amanda Hesser (remember "It is eaten with a spoon"?) dropped the ball, tackling the drink without, evidently, much knowledge of it. Bonus points for namechecking Huey Long and his practice of bringing a bartender with him from Louisiana to New York, but it seemed strange that she brought in an alternative recipe for the cocktail, from a letter to the Times in 1935:
The following week, however, Long’s recipe was politely questioned by W. D. Rose, a reader from Schenectady. “While the writer does not feel equal to enter into a controversy with the versatile and able senator on any subject, much less on that of Ramos fizzes,” Rose wrote, “and while not denying that the formula announced by Senator Long may be that of a perfect fizz, still the writer feels obliged to submit to the readers of The Times the only authentic and original formula for that famous and delectable decoction.”
Now that is national discourse! Rose’s Ramos gin fizz does not contain egg white, vanilla or seltzer, and is shaken for just one minute before being strained into a glass. Long’s version is similar to those found in any cocktail book, so I chose to feature Rose’s instead.
And this is where Hesser goes wrong. Long's version is similar to those "in any cocktail book", because it's how you make the drink. Rose's doesn't have seltzer -- ergo, it's not even proper to call it a fizz. And it may be good, but it's not a Ramos Gin Fizz.
There are myriad variations on every cocktail under the sun, and there are more than enough names to go around. Where you get into trouble, though, is when you come up with a variation on an existing cocktail, and decide that it should now hold the canonical name: this dubious practice only leads to confusion and frustration on the part of bartenders and patrons who want to make and receive the drink they thought they ordered. Want to change up a drink? Fine -- just change up its name as well.
(Back in April, the Times did something similar, giving big press to the Avgolemono Cocktail, which is simply a renamed Pink Lady. If you make it with real grenadine, a Pink Lady's a fine cocktail indeed -- why not reclaim its formerly good name, rather than just create noise?)
Anyway, back to the column. Hesser also raises her eyebrow at the recipes she's compiled, and decides that they just won't do:
Long’s crowd-pleasing recipe called for a “noggin” of gin, egg white, orange-flower water, vanilla, milk, cream, powdered sugar, seltzer and ice, and was to be shaken for 10 minutes (although I find that implausibly, or anyway exhaustingly, long).
A brief confession: I don't shake my Ramos Gin Fizzes for ten minutes -- I shake mine for at least three, however -- but they do require copious shaking in order to be made well. The whole point of the egg white is to give the drink a frothy, silky texture, and a Ramos Gin Fizz needs to be throughly aerated: the effect should be like drinking a gin- and orange-flavored meringue that yes, fizzes its way down your throat.
Paul Clarke of the Cocktail Chronicles quotes Stanley Clisby Arthur, who wrote in Famous New Orleans Drinks and How To Mix 'Em that the Ramos in your shaker should feel "ropy" as the meringue sets up. Arthur went on to tell an anecdote about how "the corps of busy shaker boys behind the bar was one of the sights of the town during Carnival, and in the 1915 Mardi Gras, 35 shaker boys nearly shook their arms off, but were still unable to keep up with the demand.” See? A chorus line of shaker boys, handing one freezing shaker off to another -- that's the image to cherish, not that of a New York foodie sniffing with disapproval and deciding that you don't really need to shake it that long at all.
A good Ramos Gin Fizz is an undertaking -- you don't order one at a bar unless you know they're up for it and have the proper time and ingredients to really deliver. (This is why I tend to drink them pretty much only at home, where I put in the effort and get to drink the payoff.) I've had some amazing Ramos Gin Fizzes out at bars (Flatiron Lounge -- where my order attracted such attention that the owner had to come out and take a look at me and say hello -- and most notably the Pegu Club, which served me a cardamom-accented fizz), but I'd only dare to order one when the bar is quiet and the bartender is game.
As Jamie Boudreau points out, "this is a drink that demands time", and I find that the time you put into making a good one is amply rewarded. And, I might add, don't mess with success.