One man’s Rickey is another man’s Gimlet

“She’ll have a sidecar with light lime, triple sec, Splenda instead of sugar and no sugared rim,” he told me after switching seats three times in the empty bar.

Freedom of choice can sometimes be so much more difficult than the freedom from choice — just ask a sociologist or a psychologist or even a bartender or two.

“And I’ll have a lime Rickey,” he said. ‘You do know what that is don’t you?”

It took a minute to make her drink, seeing how bars don’t normally stock Splenda for cocktails. But in this new age of mixology, it is not all that uncommon to have to run to the back kitchen to get stuff.

His drink was going to be more complicated. Because while I knew what a Rickey was, I had to determine whether or not he did. And I had to do it gently.

“What do you mean by a ‘lime’ Rickey,” I asked, knowing full well that the very defining characteristic of a Rickey is lime juice.

“Well, some people make Rickeys with lemon juice.”

They do? I wonder if they also make their margaritas with lemon, or if they make their lemondrops with lime?

Now I know the proper way to order a cocktail is by listing the brand, the liquor, the mixer and then the garnish. Makers Mark, bourbon, with Coke, and a lemon twist is almost certain to get you the drink that you want. Unfortunately too many people go at it backwards, picking an obscure detail and then acting as if that is enough. Ordering a Manhattan means nothing to a bartender, it only begins a discussion. Ordering a Benders rye Manhattan, up with extra bitters and a twist, however …

But I digress.

So it was with Mr. Rickey, we were going to have to go at it backasswards. We knew the mixer but now we needed to know everything else.

“Gin or vodka?”

“Gin of course,” he said as if I didn’t have a clue. It wasn’t my place to tell him that a “lime Rickey” would actually have no alcohol in it at all, because a lime Rickey is just lime juice and soda water.

No less than David A. Embury in his 1948 classic treatise on cocktails, “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks,” might have said it best: “[The Rickey] is another drink to which confusion reigns among both authors and dispensers. Even as painstaking a dictionary as Macmillan’s defines a Rickey as ‘a drink containing spirituous liquor, lime or lemon juice, and carbonated water.’”

Embury then goes on to say, “All true Rickeys are made with limes — never with lemons.”

I guess Embury never heard the words “the customer is always right.” And I guess that he never spent much time behind a bar. Because take it from a guy who has been doing it for almost three decades, tastes come and go. One decade you are shaking Manhattans and putting French 75s in Collins glasses. The next decade you are stirring the former and straining the latter into champagne flutes. If a customer wants his Rickey made with lemon juice, then that is what he gets. No matter what Mr. Embury or anyone else says.

I made him the Rickey and the sidecar and then set them both down. Two minutes later he waved me over.

“Can you put a little sweetener in this?” he asked. “It’s too tart.”

In the cocktail world, one drink is one ingredient away from being another drink. A Rickey is a gimlet with soda water and a sour is a gimlet with sugar added (and a sidecar is actually a sour with triple sec). If the drink has both sugar and soda water than it is a Collins. And if it has gin, it’s a Tom Collins.

I thought of mentioning that to the guy trying so hard to impress his date, then thought better of it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is that sometimes being quiet is better than being right.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• The Macmillan Dictionary is now called the “Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners.”

• “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” — Albert Einstein

• Perception is reality, especially in the customer service business.

• “The customer is never wrong.” — Cesar Ritz.

• Many old cocktail guides don’t list soda water as an ingredient. It is often added, but not listed. Weird.

• “Perfect.” — a man drinking a Tom Collins but calling it a Rickey on a Tuesday night.