The Elusive Ramos Gin Fizz
by Robert Iulo
My father, who had been to New Orleans when he was in the Marines told us, “The best advice I can give you to make you trip memorable is to find an old time bartender and order a Ramos Gin Fizz.”
He wasn’t really a cocktail kind of guy so I wondered what was so special about this drink. My wife Bridget and I were going to New Orleans for the first time and we told him we’d keep his advice in mind.
After we settled in our hotel there was time for a late dinner. We waited for a table at the hotel restaurant bar and this was our first chance to try a Ramos Gin Fizz. We told the bartender that we’d heard about this traditional New Orleans drink and would like to try it. He was young and he was stumped.
He said, “Sorry, but I don’t have the ingredients for one of those.”
“Hmm,” I thought, “A likely story.”
He suggested we try another famous Big Easy cocktail, a Sazarac. We did and although delicious, it wasn’t the one recommended by my father. It went on like this for a few days. We had no luck at all finding a Ramos Gin Fizz. Lots of bars in the French Quarter, where we were staying, had take-out windows open to the sidewalk where they sold drinks in go-cups all day long. I got into the habit of asking, without success, all of the bartenders we passed if they could make one. They either didn’t know what I was talking about or said they had heard of it but didn’t know how to make it. Maybe I was just asking at all the wrong places. I was becoming obsessed and Bridget was concerned that if I finally found one early in the day I would drink it before breakfast.
It was almost dinner time and we had reservations at Galatoires, another one of my father’s recommendations. It was an old New Orleans institution with classic Creole dishes and jackets required for gentlemen. I hoped they’d be able to make a Ramos Gin Fizz there. On the way we stopped at Pat O’Brien’s to kill some time until dinner. We got a table in the garden out back and of course tried still again for what I was beginning to believe was the mythical cocktail of New Orleans.
Our waiter said, “I never heard of that but Pat O’Brien’s is known for inventing another famous New Orleans drink, the Hurricane.”
He told us the ingredients which were basically rum and fruit juice; a match made in heaven and nothing wrong with that.
I told him, “Just ask the bartender if he can make it. If he can, great, but if he can’t or isn’t comfortable trying, bring us two Hurricanes.”
He was gone for some time and I wasn’t feeling confident. Finally he returned with a couple of tall narrow glasses balanced on a tray. They were filled with the most brilliant concoctions I’d ever seen. From base to top there were subtle and slightly varying shades of almost pure white going from the deepest hue at the bottom to a perfectly white, glowing heavenly cloud of thick foam at the top. It appeared to be both dense and light at the same time. We were almost afraid to taste them. After all the anticipation and now seeing these beautiful fantasies in a glass, suppose we didn’t like them? We couldn’t put it off. We clinked glasses and drank. The best way for me to describe the experience is to imagine the tastiest slice of lemon meringue pie anyone ever ate; now imagine drinking it while in a garden filled with fragrant tropical flowers. They lived up to all of our expectations and then some.
We finished them and it was time to move onto Galatoires for dinner. On the way out we passed the bar. There was a white-haired bartender standing behind it. He certainly looked the part of an old time New Orleans bartender. He even had a white handle-bar moustache. We went over to introduce ourselves and thank him for one of the best cocktails we ever had.
He introduced himself as Marcel and said, “Not many people order Fizzes any more so it was a real pleasure for me to make’em.”
I told him we’d been trying to order one for the past few days and couldn’t find a bartender who could do it.
Marcel said, “These jack-leg young bartenders don’t care to keep up with the old Noo Awlin traditions. The Ramos Gin Fizz has been around longer than jazz. It was first concocted by a gentleman bartender named Henry Ramos before Kid Ory or Jelly Roll Morton ever even played any music.”
We asked what was in it besides gin.
He said, “Heavy cream, lemon and lime juice, some sugar and a dash of seltzer. A bit of egg white to get that foam on top and then, not for taste but for aroma, just three drops of orange flower water.” So that’s why I imagined I smelled magnolias as I drank it.
I said that with relatively simple ingredients it had a very complex taste.
He replied, “It’s not so much what’s in it but the time and care you take to get it all together.”
And with that Bridget called Galatoires to make a later reservation and I ordered another round just so we could witness the “time and care” Marcel would put into his creation.
Robert Iulo is a native New Yorker who spent some good times in the South. His work has appeared in Epiphany Magazine and he’s had a special feature published in the Mississippi Sun Herald about his volunteer work on the Mississippi Coast after Katrina. He lives in New York City with his wife.