What can be said about the Ramos Gin Fizz that hasn’t already been muttered hatefully under the breath of a busy bartender?
The Ramos Gin Fizz is special for a number of reasons. Primarily, it sits unchallenged on the throne of being the most difficult and labor-intensive drink in the entire classic cocktail universe. I don’t know what second place would be, but I know it’s not close. It is the quickest way, or so its reputation goes, to get your bartender to hate you. So why do people still order it, make it and drink it? Well, if you have to ask, I suspect it’s because you’ve never tasted one. The Ramos Gin Fizz persists for the same reason that chefs still bake soufflés, or engineers still hand-assemble Ferraris, or that directors kept casting Marlon Brando. Yes, it is notoriously difficult work, but you can’t deny the finished product’s greatness.
In 1888, a tavernkeeper in his early 30s named Henry Charles Ramos moved to New Orleans and took over a bar called the Imperial Cabinet Saloon, just a couple blocks off the French Quarter. Ramos was an interesting guy. This consummate barman made his living serving drinks, despite being a diligent enemy of drunkenness. He was quick to intervene and eject anyone who showed the slightest signs of inebriation, and he closed his bar at 8 p.m. every day, no matter how popular it became, ensuring he wasn’t part of what the growing temperance movement kept describing as “moral decay.”
Ramos was a charming and genteel host (despite ostensibly running his bar like a librarian) but earned acclaim with his eponymous cocktail. He was a local celebrity by 1895, referred to in a New Orleans paper as “the most famous mixologist of the South,” and nationally recognized by 1900, when the Kansas City Star proclaimed that the Imperial Cabinet “serves a gin fizz which is not equaled anywhere.” On its face the cocktail seems simple enough, a twist on a basic Gin Fizz: gin, citrus, sugar and soda, served tall without ice. If you were to add an egg white to that you would have the Silver Fizz, and if, to the Silver Fizz, you add cream, orange flower water, and about ten minutes of aerobic exercise, you have a Ramos Gin Fizz.
Why is the Ramos so much work? Because if using both cream and egg whites and you want to get the texture right, you have to shake. A lot. You’re essentially whipping the egg white into a meringue so the foam stands firm above the rim of the glass, and contemporary reports say that a proper one took 12 minutes to make. Once his fame grew and business picked up, Ramos had to hire shaking assistants, a young man who’d stand at the bartender’s elbow, be handed a composed drink in a tin, and would do the shaking for him. For Mardi Gras in 1915, there were reportedly 35 shakermen behind the bar: The bartender would make a drink, and hand it to the first one, who’d shake it for a while then and hand it to the man next to him, and so on, creating a furious little assembly line of glinting silver pistons, Ramos’ famous Gin Fizzes pouring off the end.
The aforementioned “right” texture sets the Ramos Gin Fizz apart. It’s like if you could drink a pleasant dream. Where the piney structure of gin would normally serve as such a drink’s backbone, the Ramos Gin Fizz doesn’t really have a backbone, because it’s essentially a cloud. All that bicep work transforms egg white and an ounce of heavy cream into something light and almost airy, lifted by soda and meringue, made delicately floral by the orange flower water, and with the citrus and sweetness creating just enough tension to keep you coming back for more. Theologians can debate as to whether or not they serve brunch in heaven, but I think we can all agree that if they do, they’re serving it with Ramos Gin Fizzes.
On January 17th, 1920, the Volstead Act took effect, ushering in what would end up being nearly 14 years of Prohibition. Many barmen moved across the Atlantic, but Henry Ramos, already practically a teetotaler himself, didn’t fight it and closed up shop for good. He wouldn’t live to see legal alcohol return but in 1925, gave an interview to the New Orleans Item-Tribune in which he shared his recipe with the world, a final act of the kind of generous hospitality he was known for, enabling his drink to live on and live on it has, to the frustration of busy bartenders and the delight of everyone else.
Ramos Gin Fizz
- 2 oz. gin
- 0.5 oz. lemon juice
- 0.5 oz. lime juice
- 1 oz. simple syrup
- 2 dashes orange flower water
- 1 oz. cream
- 1 egg white
- 2-3 oz. soda water
Add all ingredients except cream and soda water to a cocktail tin. Seal and shake without ice for 15 to 20 seconds. Open, add three to five cubes or a generous handful of pebble ice, seal and shake vigorously for about three to four minutes. Meanwhile, add about 1 to 2 inches of soda water to the bottom of a chilled, 10-to 12-oz. straight-sided collins glass. Now add the cream, and briefly shake (five seconds or so) to mix it all together, then strain the cocktail off the ice into the glass until the liquid line reaches nearly to the top. Then put the glass in the fridge to let the foam set for at least a minute, ideally three or four.
Once it’s set, retrieve the glass, poke a small hole in the center of the foam with a straw or bar spoon and slowly pour the remainder of the cocktail into the center hole until the foam head lifts above the rim of the glass. If you run out of cocktail, you can add a bit more soda, but don’t push your luck, even the best made Ramos will mushroom if the head gets too tall. Garnish with a straw balanced atop the foam and a sense of accomplishment.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Gin: Now is not the time for your weird local gin that’s made with gooseberries and frankincense. Go classic here—the gin doesn’t dominate like it normally does, but it can still screw everything up. Tanqueray Ten would be my all-time top choice, classic and juniper forward with a whispering hint of citrus and chamomile, but Beefeater is an excellent choice, as are gins as soft as Plymouth and Hendricks and as robust as Junipero. What you’re looking for is something that’s not trying too hard to be unique.
Ice & Technique: The main tension in this technique is about how much ice to use. You’ll get more reliable results (the head will stand firmer above the rim of the glass) with less ice, but too little and it’ll be insufficiently chilled. Some guides will insist on two cubes max—for me, this cocktail is too warm. I do four Kold Draft (1.25 inch) cubes or, even better if you have access to it, a good handful of pebble ice. You want to whip and chill but not overdilute.
Citrus: It’s tempting, given the legacy of the drink, to assume that he called for both lemon and lime just to be obnoxious, but as David Wondrich points out in his seminal Imbibe, this was “a common epicurean touch at the time.” If you have both on hand, why not use both? If you don’t, honestly either works perfectly well on its own. If using just lemon juice, drop the citrus to 0.75 oz. If lime, keep it at 1 oz.
Simple Syrup: equal parts sugar and water, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Ramos’s original recipe called for superfine sugar, but making a syrup is much easier and more precise.
Orange Flower Water: This ingredient is a hydrosol, which means it’s a non-alcoholic distillation of flowers, much the same way they make essential oils or perfumes. It is easily available at any middle eastern market, any well stocked cocktail supply store, or online. As this is likely an ingredient that you don’t currently own, you may be wondering, “is it necessary?” The answer is, unsatisfyingly, both yes and no. No in that you can do the whole thing without it and it still tastes good. Yes in that the perfumed floral essence is pretty important to the overall charm of the drink. It is intense (use sparingly) but wonderful. I really do recommend it.
If you’re dead set against orange flower water for some reason, consider using something else to give the cocktail a little topspin. That something could be a couple raspberries or a bit of St Germain or cinnamon syrup instead of simple, or even that weird gin I told you not to use. I once made a Ramos variation with some melted mint chocolate chip ice cream (in addition to cream and eggs) and it was incredible.
Cream: Heavy cream is important for richness and body, but a Ramos with half-and-half still tastes fantastic. Don’t go leaner than that.
Egg White: Just like when you eat them, egg whites don’t really taste like anything in cocktails, but are crucial here for the structure. American eggs are largely safe (I’ve never even heard of someone getting sick from drinking a raw egg white) but I suppose the risk is non-zero—if you’re nervous about it, feel free to make something else. I hear vegan Ramos’ are possible but I admit I’ve never tried.
Soda Water: I am all about maximum bubbles, but for this particular drink, brand is unimportant. You can even use a lunch sipper like San Pellegrino or Perrier, which are usually nowhere near the level of carbonation required for cocktail work, but the bubbles aren’t really an important part of this drink. The original Ramos Gin Fizz was shaken with the soda water in the tin, which is to say, once served it wouldn’t have been bubbly at all. Use whatever you’ve got.