Icy Hot: Chicago’s Fifty/50 Group Appeals to Summer Crowds with Cool Drinks

The Nilsson Schmilsson is made with rum, Campari, vanilla, lime, and coconut. 
The Nilsson Schmilsson is made with rum, Campari, vanilla, lime, and coconut.  Ethan Talley

Using crushed ice in cocktails can create an elevated version of the popular frozen beverage.

Using crushed ice in cocktails can create an elevated version of the popular frozen beverage.

When the temperatures climb, diners’ desire for frozen drinks and icy cocktails goes up. The Fifty/50 Group, which operates six concepts in Chicago, is capitalizing on the summer season by crafting cocktails that play with the traditional frozen drink. “We try to offer icy drinks all year but in the summer we definitely step it up,” says Benjamin Schiller, Fifty/50’s beverage director. At The Berkshire Room and The Sixth, he works with his team to create visually stunning “frozen” craft cocktails that appeal to summer crowds looking for icy tipples.

When you think of a frozen cocktail, you may think of a blended drink like the pina colada, which achieves a creamy texture with the help of a frozen drink machine. At The Berkshire Room, there’s not a frozen drink machine in sight. Instead, the team uses crushed ice in their cocktails creating a “frozen effect,” Schiller says. The Nilsson Schmilsson, made with rum, Campari, vanilla, and coconut is served over crushed ice and has the same tropical flavors that guests associate with frozen drinks.

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The tiki mug that it’s served in also adds to the tropical vibe. Frozen drinks don’t always have to stick to the tropical model, Schiller says. The Berkshire Room’s “dealer’s choice” section of the menu is where the bartenders get creative. Guests choose a base spirit, a flavor profile like “smoky,” “fruity” or “herbaceous,” what kind of glassware they would like the drink to be served in, and the bartender takes it from there. Schiller says that one of the most popular choices is the “julep” style, where the cocktail is served over crushed ice, in a traditional julep glass.

“The dealer’s choice is great because our bartenders are used to creating drinks on the fly,” Schiller says. The flexibility allows the bartenders and managers to create icy drinks that break the tropical mold. The freedom to use the “frozen” drink format however they want allows the team to create drinks that satisfy their customers. “We’re not really tied down to any period or style,” Schiller says. “It’s about what the neighborhood wants and what the bartenders like.”

At The Sixth, icy drinks focus on presentation in addition to flavor. Schiller says the team plays with the viscosity of different liquors, spirits, and syrups to create drinks that are eye-catching.  The Zion Lion cocktail layers striking red passion fruit rum, a yellow-hued ginger spirit, and a green mint and lime syrup over crushed ice to create a drink that looks just like the Jamaican flag. “The presentation is always really good and the feedback is amazing,” Schiller says. “People see it across the room and they go, ‘I want one.’”

Crushed ice can also be manipulated to create dessert cocktails, too. The French Toast Milkshake cocktail is a favorite of Schiller’s and is made with vanilla ice cream, Cognac, apricot cream, and a whole egg. “We say on the menu, ‘This cocktail is high in sugar, gluten, fat, and alcohol, and it will probably take a week off your life,’” Schiller laughs. The warning is all in good fun. “Our motto is we try to not make things not too pretentious and not too serious,” Schiller says.

As the summer days continue, Schiller has found that guests love being able to relax with an icy drink. “In the afternoons and early evenings guests are looking for those cooler drinks,” he says. “We try to give them an option that’s refreshing and delicious.” He recommends that other beverage programs do the same. If you’re not serving frozen drinks this time of year, you’re “missing out,” he says.  

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