Years ago, frozen cocktails got a cold reception, but now they’re on fire
Cocktails and water have a complicated relationship.
They can’t live without each other, yet they perform a delicate dance of who’s in charge.
A little water can enhance a drink by smoothing its harsher qualities. A little more can rob it of all character.
Frozen water — ice — can steal away all the qualities that make a good liquor exceptional, yet, a lot of it can transform one normal cocktail into something altogether new and exceptional.
Take, for example, the whole family of drinks known as frozen or slushie cocktails. Most common among these along the Third Coast are margaritas, piña coladas and daiquiris, although bars and restaurants across the spectrum find creative ways to invent frozen drinks of their own. In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of frozen wine drinks as well.
The Spot, a bar and restaurant complex with five separate venues at 3204 Seawall Blvd. in Galveston, sells frozen cocktails all year round, said Jeff Schurwon, complex beverage director. At one of the venues, Rum Shack, there are three signature frozen cocktails, plus a dozen more options for adding flavors and fruits. One drink is the Dirty Monkey, a frozen piña colada with banana cream and a floater of Myers Dark Rum.
“Next to the margarita, our frozen mojito is the most popular frozen drink,” Schurwon said. “It is one of the drinks we have to make in large batches to keep up. One of the things we have done to make it more of a signature drink is we take fresh mint and finely purée it right into the drink. It really brings out a great flavor.”
Not all cocktail lovers have warm feelings for frozen drinks. Some, especially tequila champions, actually abhor the idea of slushie concoctions. Still, is there a better way to loosen the stranglehold of a Texas summer than a bit of shade with an icy liquor-laced snowball in a glass?
Although the popularity of frozen drinks is fairly recent on the cocktail timeline, their existence is not. Many cultures in China and Japan recorded the pleasures of shaved ice mixed with different syrups and intoxicants as far back as the seventh century. Ancient cultures in South America had similar drinks.
In the southern United States, the idea of putting ice in a drink to make it cold was almost unheard of until the early 19th century when two Boston brothers concocted the idea of harvesting ice in the winter and shipping it south, first to the Caribbean to sell in the summer. Their fellow Bostonians scoffed that the ice would never survive the sea voyage, but to everyone’s surprise, it did with little loss. Unfortunately for the brothers, they had lots of ice but no customers who had any idea what good it was or interest in buying it. It took years of hard financial times, a break up in the partnership and a lot of imaginative marketing before the ice business became successful. And where the enjoyment of a cold drink in the heat of summer in the South became less an oddity, the invention of what was probably the first American frozen cocktail soon followed — the mint julep.
Because it contained refined sugar and good bourbon served in a silver goblet of shaved ice, the mint julep was considered a symbol of wealth. Being a summer drink, it was mixed with muddled mint, an herb in abundance, and sipped through a straw.
Other frozen drinks did not soon follow. In fact, the popularity of frozen drinks was almost nonexistent until a century later. In 1938, a man named Fred Waring approached a well-known home economist named Mabel Stegner with a contraption he had purchased called the electric blender. It was a machine that had been around since the 1920s, but it had never caught the public’s fancy, probably because it was irritatingly noisy, not all that reliable and was frighteningly dangerous to use. Stegner was interested, but with refinements needed, World War II and post-war adjustments, it wasn’t until 1952 that she produced a book of recipes specifically for the blender. One was a recipe for making frozen strawberry daiquiris.
The frozen margarita appeared as sales of blenders skyrocketed and their popularity followed suit. Restaurants picked up on the trend and furthered sales. That’s where the story of Mariano Martinez, the owner and operator of Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine in Dallas, comes in. His signature frozen margarita sales in the 1970s were so brisk the blender was constantly overheating and the bartenders were standing in line waiting to get the drinks made. Late one night, he was buying a frozen drink at a convenience store and concocted the idea of using the frozen drink machine to make margaritas. The rest of that part is history.
In the endless pursuit of convenience, grocery and liquor stores today are selling frozen cocktail kits, including an expanding variety of bagged, pre-made slushie drinks that contain the alcohol.
Frozen drinks aren’t just for the South anymore either. The Food Network recently rounded up frozen drinks from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and presented drinks like the Blood Orange Agave Float in Oregon, the Bourbon Milkshake in Kentucky, the Cherry Bomb Frose in Georgia and the Frozen Absinthe Frappe in Maryland. North Carolina offered Black Street Beets and Hawaii served a Frozen Coconut Mojito, while Colorado came up with the Frozen Blackberry Sage Smash. The feature certainly showed that frozen is hot.
An exciting thing for the home mixer is that experimentation with frozen drinks can be fun. Almost any cocktail can be made into a frozen drink with only a few tweaks. Naturally, fresh fruit works great as do most herbs and spices. The frozen nature of the drink does diminish the taste of alcohol, so keep that in mind when choosing the liquor. But the types of drinks are limitless.
Dennis Byrd, owner of five venues at The Spot, created this and many of the other signature drinks served. This frozen cocktail is usually made in large batches.
Rum Shack Frozen Mojito
2 cups crushed ice
2 ounces Flor de Caña Gold Rum
½ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces soda
8-10 fresh mint leaves, puréed
1 mint sprig for garnish
Place the first six ingredients in a blender, stir to mix and then blend until slushy. Pour into a cocktail glass and garnish with a mint sprig.