It’s never been a better time to go frozen.
November 19, 2018 ● 5 min read
By Dan Q. Dao | Photos courtesy Diamond Reef, Stay Gold, and Polynesian
At the onset of the early-aughts Cocktail Revolution, bartenders shunned the frozen drink.
It wasn’t just that the noise and appearance of the machines seemed anachronistic to the dimly-lit, buttoned-up sensibilities of Prohibition-inspired speakeasies; it was also that the drinks they made were clumsy, overly sweet and syrupy. These slushie prototypes catered to the same weak palates that enjoyed candy-flavored vodkas and sticky Cosmos during the bartending Dark Ages of the 80s and 90s.
Times have changed.
Trade unmarked doors and candles for palm prints and dance music, and the team behind one of New York’s most popular speakeasies, Attaboy, had wrought “the anti-Speakeasy.” When Diamond Reef opened in 2017, The New York Times praised it as "the night-life equivalent of a shirt open one button too far." Across the country, bars were embracing similarly relaxed etiquettes—in decor, service, and drink styles—without sacrificing the quality of hospitality.
If a single cocktail on Diamond Reef’s menu captures this dynamic shift in a glass, it’s the Penichillin, a slushified reimagination of co-owner Sam Ross’s own Penicillin he created in 2005 while working at Sasha Petraske’s legendary Milk & Honey: blended Scotch, ginger, honey, and fresh lemon, with a float of peated Scotch. With the exact same ingredients, just at different ratios, the tweaked version cemented the idea that serious cocktails, even those made with brown spirits, could exist in frozen form. After the twelve years between the Penicillin and the Penichillin, brain freeze is once again en vogue.
“There’s a perception that drinks from these machines need to be lighter and tropical, but the texture is amazing no matter what you put in there so we thought ‘why not?’” says Ross. Diamond Reef represents the new wave of cocktail bars: you don't need reservations, bartenders don't wear bow-ties and the music isn't old-timey jazz. “The global battle to make people drink better has been won—can we get back to having fun again?”
The use of blenders behind the bar dates back to 1937 with the invention of the Waring Blender, which first debuted under the name “Miracle Mixer.” After becoming a ubiquitous household appliance, it also became popular at restaurants in warm-weather cocktail capitals like Florida and Cuba—Hemingway himself was a known fan of the blender-whirred daiquiri.
It wasn’t long before the piña colada came onto the scene, coinciding with the heyday of the escapist, tropically-fitted tiki movement in the 60s. And then in Dallas, Texas in 1971, a modified soft serve ice cream machine was used to churn out the first blended margarita. Hello, powdered margarita mix. Soon, slushie-machine cocktails were all the rage, loaded with sugar to maintain their consistency and flying in the face of the balanced, stodgy cocktail.
Now, just as drinkers are finally beginning to associate “daiquiris” with the classic rum-and-lime coupe glass cocktail rather than the kind crowned with a pineapple wedge, blenders and slushie machines are once again back in full force—but this time helmed by a new generation of bartenders armed with access to fresh fruits and juices, the know-how to balance flavors and water content, and the resources to experiment with lesser-known ingredients.
“Blenders were never in fashion because bartenders for decades were mostly not the same kind of passionate professionals as they are today,” says Tobin Ellis, hospitality design guru at BarMagic of Las Vegas. “The more bartenders get excited about actually making great drinks, the more tools they want to play with. I’ve always loved blenders—it’s like having an extra set of hands. Instead of shaking or stirring, I can be doing ten other things while my little buddy is mixing, diluting, and bringing a drink to temperature.”
Brian Miller, the cocktail legend behind Major Food Group’s tiki behemoth The Polynesian, also witnessed this change in attitude while visiting Audrey Saunders’s lauded Pegu Club. “I had one of the best frozen banana daiquiris of my life from [head bartender] Ricky Agustin,” he says. “A great drink is a great drink, by any means necessary.”
These days, the debates revolve not around whether or not to have a frozen drink on the menu, but whether it should be made in a blender or a slushie machine, and what must be tweaked in a recipe for a frozen format. Today’s best manage to strike a balance that earns them a place in the canon of modern classics.
The Stay Cold.
“We had to up the sweeteners quite drastically to get the balance right,” explains Ross. “If you were to shake some of the batch up and strain it over ice, it would be too sweet, but when you add a bunch of water to the batch and throw it in the machine, [it’s] the only way to get the intensity of the ginger to come through. We still hit it with Islay at the end to get that smoke on the nose.”
The Stay Cold
At Stay Gold, a more laidback concept overseen by The Up & Up’s Chaim Dauermann, the titular Stay Cold fuses bourbon, ginger, lemon, and IPA in an Irish Coffee mug. Also made in a frozen machine, which the bartenders have affectionately nicknamed the “Robert Frosty,” the drink sips tart, a little bitter, and perfectly refreshing. As it melts, floral notes from the IPA emerge. Head bartender Kacie Lambert explains that using a frozen ice machine actually helps deliver the exact same cocktail every time.
“A large part of making a cocktail is thinking about how ice works with ingredients and spirits,” says Lambert. “When it comes to making frozen drinks, I enjoy them from a frozen machine because the level of dilution can be controlled therefore offering a consistent cocktail. Frozen machines also allow for a quick alternative to a blender in high volume situations.”
The Fiddler's Green at The Polynesian.
The Pandan Painkiller
At famed Chicago tiki bar Three Dots and A Dash, beverage director Kevin Beary employs Blendtec and Vitamix Vita-Prep blenders, but no slushie machines. “Making a classic cocktail format work in a frozen machine requires changing the recipe a fair amount, often adding more sugar, whereas blended drinks don’t take that much adjustment—you just have to take into account dilution from ice or water,” he explains. As a workaround for smoothing out drinks like the Pandan Painkiller, Beary batches all of the ingredients and freezes them for 24 hours before blending the drink.
At New York’s Katana Kitten, Masa Urushido deals with the issue of dilution by creating a blended frozen drink that evolves over time, changing in flavor as the ice melts. In this riff on a frozen margarita, Urushido uses a ruby port wine float to deliver some flavor upfront, while the spirit takes the backseat for a minute. “The first sip tastes like a refreshing, cold margarita, while the port brings out the flavor of the seasonal fruit from our house-made ‘Tutti-Frutti’ cordial,” he explains. “As it melts towards the end, you can taste more nuances of agave flavor from the tequila.”
The best news is that it’s only the beginning of this new boozy Ice Age. Or at least I hope it is, as I push through the happy hour crowd to order my third Stay Cold on a recent night. I won’t deny myself the child-like excitement watching the drink swirl out of the slushie machine an into a sour glass—not when the novelty of the experience is matched by serious cocktail game.
And when in doubt, remember the old Friday’s trick, says Tobin Ellis. “When the drink looks like a baby’s bottom, you’ve blended it perfectly. If you blend too long, you get a vortex in the middle which is a sure sign of a runny drink. And who wants a runny Piña Colada?”