The Rise and Fall of the Lime Rickey, the Soda Fountain Comeback Kid

Vicky Wasik

To most New Yorkers, it means a cherry-tinged treat. To many New Englanders, it's a fizzy raspberry soda. For the purist, it's all about the lime—and only the lime. One thing's certain: The lime rickey is the soda fountain's comeback kid.

A refreshing mix of lime juice, fruit or sugar syrup, and seltzer, the lime rickey owes its origin to its alcoholic forefather. Sometimes referred to simply as "a rickey" or "gin rickey," the drink was famously concocted at Shoomaker's bar in Washington D.C. in the 1880s. It was there that Missouri-born lobbyist Colonel Joe Rickey took to a mix of rye whiskey, fizzy Apollinaris water, and lemon juice on the rocks—not exactly the drink that came to take his name.

"I don't think I ever drank a 'rickey' in my life," Rickey told Ohio's Mansfield News at the turn of the century. The lime was supposedly the touch of Missouri Rep. William Henry Hatch, who in 1883 ordered "that Joe Rickey drink" with half a lime in lieu of Rickey's lemon juice. This new combination caught on, with gin eventually eclipsing whiskey as the standard spirit.

The Rise of the Soda Fountain Apothecary

Library of Congress

At the end of the 19th century, the difference between fizzician and physician had grown blurry. In the 1890s, when the technology to carbonate water became commercially available, soda fountains started to pop up across the country, right in the drugstore. By 1895, there were an estimated 50,000 soda fountains across the nation. What began with pharmacists adding mineral salts to emulate the healing qualities of naturally carbonated water, evolved into other additives: cream, chocolate, sugar, and stronger stuff—from alcohol to narcotics.

Around the turn of the century, some started to question the safety of unregulated refreshments like Coca-Cola, then dubbed "Mother's Little Helper." In 1902, a Los Angeles Times article, "They Thirst for Cocaine: Soda Fountain Fiends Multiplying," called attention to the prevalence and dangers of the Coca-Cola "habit."

Americans didn't quit the habit for a while—7UP ads from the 1930s promised to take the "ouch out of grouch," via mood-enhancing lithium citrate—but the tides had started to shift towards a preference for natural ingredients. In 1912, The Druggists Circular responded to a violation of the Pure Food and Drug Act through the use of artificial flavors and colors in a cherry syrup: "In these days of enlightenment of honest food and drugs, artificial 'essences' have lost much of their one-time vogue and are not so prevalent in masquerade as fruit flavors....To-day, cherry syrups are made of cherries—sometimes fortified with essential oil of almond or peach kernel."

In 1915, the editorial staff of The Soda Fountain magazine released The Dispenser's Formulary or Soda Water Guide. A "practical handbook for soda fountain operators," the book features guidelines for equipment and service, plus "over 2,000 tested formulas." Homemade syrups—from honey dew to Indian birch—are at the core of essentially every recipe, including a chapter's worth of rickeys.

The nation was on a sugar rush, and the soda fountain took on a life of its own, beyond the drugstore walls. It filled the gap Prohibition left for a public meeting place, and skilled bartenders became skilled soda jerks. There were 120,000 soda fountains in the country by the late '20s, by Silver's predictions, with 650 in New York City alone.

A Prohibition Salve

Vicky Wasik

"Having a lime rickey without bourbon is better than, say, spiked lemonade without liquor. It's more of an adult drink even in its soda form."

The rickey stood at the center of the country's new Prohibition-era drinking habits. "It was one of the standards of trying to mocktail yourself into not drinking," says Taylor Peck, co-owner of San Francisco's catacomb of soft drinks, The Fizzary, and its sister brand, Taylor's Tonics. "Lime was able to give you a kick. It comes through with that sharp tartness, and has a deeper, more mature bitterness that a lemon is lacking. Having a lime rickey without bourbon is better than, say, spiked lemonade without liquor. It's more of an adult drink even in its soda form."

"[Prohibition] was the soda fountain's golden age," says Ron Silver, owner and in-house "fizzician" of Bubby's, an American comfort food restaurant with outlets in New York and Japan. "From about 1910 to 1925, soda was at its height. The trend at that time was to make syrups from scratch, from the freshest possible ingredients."

Manufacturers took notice of soda's success, and by the end of the 1920s, companies like Coke were selling more soda in bottles than at fountains. After World War II, Americans began to purchase home refrigerators in far greater numbers than before, ushering the decline of the soda fountain. As the industry giants scaled, they began using sugar substitutes, sweeter and cheaper than the real thing, and by the '60s, corn syrup reigned.

Which left the lime rickey in an awkward spot. The freshest-ingredients-possible vibe and lime bite that Peck attributes the rickey's success to may very well have been its undoing. Bottled lime rickeys didn't take off the way lemon-lime soda, ginger ale, or cola did, and with the liquor industry back in action, there was less need for a soft drink with the punch of a cocktail.

The Return of the Rickey

Wikimedia Commons

In 1992, Thomas Reilly, who worked in a Queens, NY soda fountain in the 1960s and '70s, informed the New York Times that their recipe for a lime rickey was in fact that of a cherry lime rickey. "The true lime rickey was the soda fountain drink most like an alcoholic drink, because if done right [it] is almost truly unpalatable," wrote Reilly, "It was most frequently ordered by a teenage boy looking to impress his girlfriend."

Today, only a couple hundred soda fountains remain, but they're back on the rise. Nostalgic shops like Brooklyn's own Brooklyn Farmacy, The Ice Cream Bar in San Francisco, and The Franklin Fountain in Philadelphia are bringing back a pride in from-scratch sodas, local ingredients, and classic flavors like the rickey.

Last year, Silver opened a soda fountain at Bubby's High Line location in New York City, for which he found much inspiration in The Dispenser's Formulary. "I think the flavor profiles of the book's recipes were a bit sweet, so I've adjusted a lot of them to my own taste."

He's not shy when it comes to praising the merits of fresh, homemade soda—including his own. "What I wanted the tagline [of my soda] to be is 'One taste and you'll realize you've been fucked over your entire life.'"

Peck sees a place for bottled beverages in the craft soda revival. He notes that essentially all the new makers on the market are using sugar, and most of the small legacy brands that switched to corn syrup in the '80s have made the switch back to sugar over the last several years. Peck's also seen an uptick in the number of rickeys being bottled on the East Coast.

He also swears by Empire Bottling Works' raspberry-lime rickey: "The raspberry's sharp and enlivening." It's no surprise that 75-year-old Empire is based in Rhode Island. In New England, the raspberry-lime rickey rules. It's the sweet-tart standby that Brigham's Ice Cream customers used to order with their cone, and that still eclipses plain lime rickeys at Cambridge's Mr. Bartley's and ice cream shops along Cape Cod.

Some, like Reilly, would argue that these aren't lime rickeys at all; that a genuine lime rickey is a pure combination of lime, seltzer and sugar or simple syrup. On the other hand, the Dispenser's Formulary called for the addition of "fruit syrup." Some, like John Philis, owner of the excellent Lexington Candy Shop, consider cherry lime rickeys the real deal. "If you order a lime rickey, it comes with cherry syrup," says Philis. "That's a traditional New York lime rickey."

Peck is also a fan of the cherry-lime combination: "Cherry's got a proper tartness and a very seductive sweetness to it that can almost do no wrong. It doesn't hamper the tartness of the lime, but gives it that comfort that adding vanilla to virtually anything would do as well."

Variations in rickeys beyond fruit choices abound. Even the traditionalists have added their own twists. At both Bubby's and Brooklyn Farmacy, the drink is made with cherry syrup and lime syrup, rather than straight lime juice. Lexington Candy Shop's recipe calls for fresh lime (one lime's worth if it's large; one and a half if it's small or medium) and two ounces of Fox's cherry syrup. At Tom's Restaurant in Brooklyn, the drink comes with fresh lime and a hit of Fox's cherry syrup, added until it looks like the right hint of color—not too red, not too clear. They've been making it for over 70 years, and their current rendition features commercial lemon-lime soda in lieu of seltzer.

Everyone can at least agree on one thing: The lime rickey is incredibly refreshing. As Philis summed it up, borrowing a term D.C. bartender and author Derek Brown popularized in reference to the gin rickey: "It's air conditioning in a glass."