Like many youth reared in suburbia during the 1980s and ’90s, my fantasies of imbibing revolved around frozen concoctions. The daiquiris and piña coladas that whirred to life in blenders were the emblems of fantastical tropical vacations, handed to television’s prime time stars who were lounging on the azure beaches and boisterous cruise ships I also glamorized. How disappointed I was to discover, as soon as I was old enough to slurp these frosty concoctions, that for the most part these drinks were actually cloying messes. Or maybe when in the sunshine, perched poolside on a chaise longue, everything tasted just a little bit better, I supposed.
As cocktails entered a gratefully sophisticated realm in recent years, savvy bartenders took it upon themselves to update these thoughtlessly churned out sugar bombs. There is no reason, bartenders discovered, why the balance synonymous with well-wrought drinks and the whimsy inherent in easy-to-down frozen libations should be mutually exclusive concepts. It is possible for these breezy, summer-perfect blender favorites to also be of a quality caliber. Consider the frozen margarita, a mainstay of taco-fueled happy hour sessions. Instead of providing just a mere sugar rush, many of today’s versions are thoughtfully nuanced, like the Rosalita served at Chef Roberto Santibañez’s restaurant Fonda, a three-unit concept in New York City. The drink marries Maestro Dobel blanco tequila with hibiscus, Cointreau, and lime juice.
At the bar, a professional who constantly reinforces the notion that frozen drinks indeed have a prominent role amid today’s craft cocktail resurgence is Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who heads the beverage program at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. His Frozen Negroni, for instance, incorporates simple syrup into the usual Campari-gin-sweet vermouth formula. The drink’s bitter profile is such a beautiful juxtaposition to the heaps of ice it calls for that variations of it are plentiful. At the laid-back Parson’s Chicken & Fish in Chicago, one of the most popular cocktails to sip alongside hush puppies and salt cod fritters is the Original Negroni Slushy, uniting local Letherbee gin with Luxardo Bitter, sweet vermouth, and citrus. Likewise, Parson’s Margarita Classic Slushy is made with Hacienda Vieja Tequila, Mandarine Napoléon, lime, and orange juice. One particularly distinctive margarita riff is the Jägerita. Finessed by Morgenthaler’s old colleague David Cordoba, it sidesteps the usual tequila for Jägermeister, the bitter German spirit that bartenders have also successfully elevated from its days as a go-to shooter. Throughout the country, the frozen cocktail now abounds, whether it’s a Tiki-style Painkiller dispensed from the slushy machine at New York’s the Happiest Hour, or the Skipper (Rhum Barbancourt 8-year-old, Skipper rum, Lazzaroni Amaretto, pineapple, and lemon), a precursor to kabocha-oxtail croquettes at Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco.
Last summer, I spent one week in New York City bars getting brain freeze from drinks like the Uncle Willie’s Frozen Coffee, a bourbon-java hybrid at Skinny Dennis in Brooklyn; a fiery Loco en el Coco with mezcal, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, and coconut at JIMMY, on the roof of the sleek James New York hotel; and the Spanish-style Kalimotxo at the convivial restaurant Huertas, a simple mix of red wine and cola. On a sultry evening (or a weekend afternoon), these types of drinks are pure salvation. But just like ice cream, I’d even relish one deep in the doldrums of winter. Others agree, and that’s why many of these traditionally warm-weather cocktails are available year-round.
While upgrading those glacial piña coladas and daiquiris I once coveted with ingredients like coconut milk and fresh-squeezed lime certainly make these classic al fresco tipples sing, it’s all the more riveting to see how bartenders are applying their imagination to create contemporary icy quaffs. “There was a whole era of frozen drinks that should probably remain in the past,” says Blake Pope, general manager at the seasonal-minded restaurant Kindred in Davidson, North Carolina. “Most of them were never a bartender’s best friend, either. There’s something to be said about modern and creative ones.” After hanging out at an Asheville joint where a couple of boozy slushies peppered the menu, Pope was inspired to bring that same experience to Kindred, quipping, “I thought it was so cool, like, ‘How can we be making pretentious cocktails when we literally have a slushy machine over there?’” After Kindred’s owners sampled the aforementioned Negroni Slushy on a trip to Chicago, they were equally keen to add a frozen drink to Kindred’s list. The Take Two of These & Call Me Amaro, with Fernet-Branca, St-Germain, light simple syrup, and fresh lime juice is a far more refined alternative to, say, the well-known vodka-Kahlúa-Baileys Irish Cream-vanilla ice cream creation, the Mudslide. “We took a different direction and decided it should be a digestif. It lives on our dessert menu,” explains Pope. “It’s the perfect balance of bitter, floral, and acidic, all the while acting as a digestive aid and being delicious. I’d be lying if I said I don’t sneak a spoonful on the regular.”
Boozy milkshakes are also satisfying forms of dessert-inspired frozen drinks, and a genre piquing the curiosity of Benjamin Schiller, the barman behind Chicago establishments the Berkshire Room and recently opened the Sixth. He’s currently experimenting with his own sophisticated spins, spiking chocolate-peanut butter and raspberry ice creams served in oversized glasses and topped with flavored whipped creams. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he’s also embracing a dewar, a device used to transport and use nitrogen in small quantities, to whip up ready-made frozen cocktail components à la Dippin’ Dots. These cool, broken-down elements will then be re-introduced to the final drinks just before serving. This approach is obviously far more creative and complex than what is usually sipped at the swim-up bar.
“It’s true that the perception of blended drinks tends to remind people of garish margaritas or impossibly bright neon cocktails from beach resorts, so I admit the bar is not set that high,” says Schiller. But just as the Sixth embraces fresh fruits over pre-bottled mixers and shuns cheap flavored whiskey for single barrels of bourbon hand-selected in Kentucky, Schiller is determined to help continue steering the conversation toward top-notch frozen drinks. For him, the blender is just another tool in the bartender’s arsenal leading to interesting, textural cocktails. “What I like about the blender is not so much how the flavors meld, but rather how the drink’s viscosity changes,” says Schiller. “Aside from crushed ice and egg whites, we don’t have an overwhelming array of ingredients to drastically change the viscosity of drinks behind the bar. With a blender, all of that changes. We have more of an ability to create definitive layers in a drink, offer guests the choice of a spoon or a straw, and [build] a firm platform to set creams, foams, edible components, and other garnishes upon.”
As hot weather sets in, certain rituals are inevitable: frequently reaching for the water pitcher, taking multiple showers a day, eating dinner at a restaurant’s most choice patio table—and for me, guzzling playful, impressively made frozen cocktails is another must. Luckily, just as surely as there will be tricked-out, playful sundae concoctions for me to dig my spoon into, we’ll undoubtedly be seeing an abundance of inventive takes on slushy libations this summer to boot.