Frozen drinks have a lot of baggage. Those slushy, sugary monstrosities are the tube tops and feathered earrings of cocktails, the sort of drink you expect to see in a quart-sized plastic cup in the hands of a sunburned salesman vacationing in Panama City, Fla.
But here’s the thing. Daiquiris, margaritas and piña coladas, the holy trinity of frozen drinks, haven’t always sucked. Once upon a time they were serious drinks. They were not invented by T.G.I. Fridays.
Daiquiris were created in the early 20th century in elegant old Havana by a bartender named Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, a.k.a. The Cocktail King of Cuba. Hemingway drank them by the gallon. The proto- piña colada originated in Puerto Rico in the early 1800s. There are several creation stories for margaritas, but it’s generally agreed they were born in Mexico in the early 1930s. All were served on the rocks.
So what the hell happened?
Prohibition. For 13 misguided years, good liquor was available only to those wealthy enough to buy it from bootleggers (or to finagle a doctor’s prescription). Everybody else had to sneak-drink bathtub gin in speakeasies and pool their money for moonshine runs. When American drinkers emerged from the secret gin joints in 1933, cocktail culture had vanished. Distilleries had closed and professional bartenders had found other jobs. Mixology was dead. Inferior liquor and unskilled, part-time bartenders were all that remained. It was the beginning of the Dark Ages of the Cocktail.
As the century progressed, the dark ages got darker. The trend toward industrialized, mass-produced food in post-war America meant fresh ingredients in drinks like fruit and juice were replaced with mixes. Simple ignorance, combined with the need to mask bad booze, produced the frozen drink. Loaded with sugar and ice, these concoctions numbed the taste buds and failed to deliver flavor. By the 1970s, drink menus in fern-festooned bars across the country featured a bleak array of strawberry daiquiris, frozen mudslides and stupid, sugar-laden slushies named for sex acts, natural disasters and body parts. Frozen Sex on the Beach, anyone?
But lo, at the turn of the 21st century, a miracle happened that saved us from mutant, dessert-like frozen drinks. Cocktail culture was revived as part of the artisanal food movement, with craft spirits giving brow to booze. Mixology became an art again, and a class of professional bartenders began using high-quality ingredients to make frozen drinks even Nick and Nora would appreciate. It’s now possible to have a shame-free frozen drink. It’s even possible to take a sophisticated cocktail like a gin and tonic and turn it into a frozen drink that’s not an embarrassment. And now that climate change is giving us endless summers and endless hurricanes, frozen drinks are appropriate for year-round fun.
Here’s what you need to know to make your frozen drinks respectable. And tasty.
Use high-quality liquor. A cocktail is only as good as its booze. If you wouldn’t drink it on the rocks, don’t use it in your frozen drink. If it’s on the endcap at the liquor store, marked 50 percent off, don’t use it in your frozen drink. You can’t mask bad liquor.
Use a lot of liquor. Few things are more depressing than a watery frozen drink. Use a heavy hand on the booze because the ice will melt as you sip, diluting the drink. This means you’re going to be drinking a more powerful concoction, so pace yourself.
Use fresh fruit. If the drink calls for fruit, don’t use canned or frozen because those options usually contain fructose, corn syrup or artificial additives. You want fruit flavor in your drink, not cloying sweetness. Chop up fresh pineapple or strawberries and buy fresh-squeezed fruit juice, or squeeze it yourself. You must not let extra sugar creep in. Too much sugar ruins a frozen drink.
Don’t use granulated sugar. Granulated sugar won’t dissolve in frozen drinks and you’ll end up with a gritty sip, even if you muddle it with the fruit. Use simple syrup instead, and don’t buy it premade. Again, it’s likely to have added fructose or corn syrup. Make your own: Put a cup of sugar and a cup of water in a saucepan, bring it to a boil, simmer for about three minutes or until the sugar is dissolved. Make it in advance and store it in the fridge so you’re ready for cocktails on a moment’s notice, because – #nopoliticalreferences – but if there was ever a time for drinks on a moment’s notice, it’s now.
Don’t use whipped cream or ice cream. Ever.
Run your blender on the highest setting. A frozen drink should be thick and creamy, not icy and slushy. Set that blender on high and whip the heck out of your drink until it has a head of froth.
Now that you know about the frozen drink reformation, spread the gospel to people like that salesman in Panama City Beach. Take these individuals to a real cocktail lounge and buy them a margarita made with fresh limes and a double-shot of Patrón, whipped to creamy perfection. They’ll see the light and never again consume a margarita dispensed from a slushie machine and served in a plastic cup.
*Photos styled by Rebecca Buenik