"My first experience using a slushie machine was in 1989, when I first started bartending," Paul McGee of Three Dots & a Dash remembers. "You took a five gallon bucket, ripped open a package of margarita mix, poured in a couple of bottles of triple sec, poured in five handles of cheap tequila and a bunch of water and you stirred it, dumped it in the machine, and that was your frozen margarita."
Things have changed a bit. Now McGee talks about dilution ratios, the multiplier effect of bitters and the proper chill settings on his machines. What hasn't changed: Frozen drinks are fun. "The cocktail world went from really serious with all these lists of rules and speakeasies with no entrances and now it's gone into this really fun, more lowbrow approach."
Frozen cocktails are on the rise this summer, and Chicago seems to be in the very center of the scene. What began as a gimmick with a Negroni slushie at Parson's Chicken & Fish has exploded into a full-blown trend. Perhaps, as McGee suggests, these frozen drinks are a reaction against fussy, expensive cocktails, the kind you need a password to access and a ten-minute wait to sip; perhaps they're just a fun way to cool down on a hot summer day.
They look so easy: most of the time, the bartender pulls a handle on a machine and out pops your perfectly frozen drink. Behind the scenes, it's not quite so simple. I sat down with tiki guru McGee to learn a little more about these brainfreeze-inducing drinks.
When developing a slushie drink, you can't just pour a cocktail made with regular proportions into a slushie machine and hope for the best. For example, if you were to pour a standard batched margarita into a machine, McGee says it would end up way too boozy and way too tart. "The alcohol is the last thing to freeze—so that first sip you take hits you like a ton of bricks." In a standard cocktail, McGee aims for a dilution ratio (from shaking or stirring) of around 25%; for the slushies, it's more like 33% or higher. McGee also has found through trial and error that he needs to reduce the level of citrus, or the drink will be mouth-puckeringly tart.
Why not just throw the whole thing in a blender? McGee reserves the blender for drinks with whole fruit and creamy ingredients. "If someone just wants a frozen daiquiri in the blender, it falls apart easily. It looks great for a minute or two, then you have liquid in the bottom and the ice rises." Three Dots has a Banana Daiquiri on the menu, made in a blender instead of a slushie machine, which incorporates a whole banana and coconut cream liqueur. "The texture is much more velvety, viscous, thicker, richer." The slushie machine, with its ongoing agitation and pure, icy consistency, works better for drinks that can freeze evenly, based mainly on syrups, alcohol, and fresh juices.
Frozen cocktails do make life easier for bartenders—and the drinks do come quicker to guests—since slushies are generally (but not always, as you'll see below) pre-batched. But McGee urges a bit of caution: "When I was working in the '80s, everything we mixed was crap. We bartenders worked so hard to get this craft back. Now, we've become so enthralled with getting the drink out quick that we're sacrificing a little. We have to be very careful or else we're going to be right back where we were." But a frozen drink or two can't hurt, and McGee makes some of the best.
Where should you go to seek out great examples of the new boozy slushies and frozen drinks? Here are our favorites.
The Golden Glove at Three Dots and a Dash
The Golden Glove ($13), a slushie cocktail, is an adaptation of a recipe discovered by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, the literary detective of the tiki world. It was originally served in the Bar La Florida in Havana in the 1930s—the same bar where Hemingway got his famous daiquiris. The Golden Glove is "basically a daiquiri variation," explains McGee. The difference—and you can definitely taste it—is the choice of rum. In addition to lime and orange curacao, the Golden Glove contains a hit of dark, Jamaican Appleton VX rum, which gives the drink a complex funky undertone that most frozen drinks lack. "It might be a little shocking to some people," McGee says with a laugh.
Perhaps because of McGee's insistence that it be less citrus-driven, The Golden Glove is subtler and more balanced than most other frozen drinks. It's shockingly easy to down in a sitting—a perfect fit for the menu at Three Dots, a venue known for improving tiki drinks that have, in other venues, degraded into rum-and-syrup-laden punches to the head.
Frozen Mai Tai at The Dawson
Clint Rogers, the bar manager at The Dawson, isn't nearly as much of a tiki-phile as Paul McGee. But when he decided to develop a signature frozen drink for the bar, a mai tai sounded like a good challenge. "It's hard to make these frozen drinks as proper cocktails, which they never were when they came out of machines in the past," he says.
The Frozen Mai Tai ($11) at the Dawson defies McGee's frozen drink rules. Rogers keeps the alcohol in the recipe the same before freezing—but he serves the drink in a smaller-than-usual glass. "Guests mention, after the second drink, that they understand why the glass is so small." The first thing the drinker tastes here is a surprisingly sharp hit of lime juice. Immediately after the lime wakes up your taste buds, the soothing marzipan-like taste of orgeat syrup takes over, bringing the drink to a smooth finish.
The Dawson makes its own twist on the standard orgeat syrup for this drink: in addition to almonds, sugar, and orange peel, Rogers adds Mandorla, an almond-infused grappa. "The alcohol in the grappa extracts extra flavor from the almonds and adds a different, almost candied, almond note."
It's the strongest of the drinks on this list, and you probably shouldn't have more than one—but the vibrant citrus elements and lack of overt sweetness make this slushie mai tai an ideal outdoor thirst-quencher on a hot day.
Frozen Hurricane at Bub City
Paul McGee also runs the bar program at this country-western-themed BBQ joint upstairs from Three Dots, and it was one of the first in town to debut a fancy frozen drink. Here, they sell like hotcakes, and bartenders can be found pulling on the frozen machine handle at least once a minute during dinner service.
The latest drink to go in the machine at Bub City is a Frozen Hurricane ($10) made with passionfruit syrup, pomegranate and lemon juices, and a combination of two Jamaican rums, Appleton VX and Coruba Dark. Unlike the bland alcoholic hit of a typical white rum from your local bar's well, the combination of two Jamaican rums adds potency and flavor, with background notes of cinnamon, clove, and molasses. This complexity helps elevate Bub City's Hurricane above the typical frozen New Orleans junk. (Sadly, though, there isn't a drive-through.)
While passionfruit is just a background note in a many frozen Hurricanes, here the fruit combines with the dark rum to leave a long, lingering flavor on your tongue that makes you want to keep sipping and sipping until you're slurping up nothing but iced air.
Ryukyu at Mott Street
At Mott Street, they've taken frozen drinks in a somewhat different direction with fresh, thin-shaved ice instead of a slushie machine. Bartender Nate Chung has devoted a significant chunk of his bar's real estate to a giant Fujimarca electric ice planer that shaves tiny flakes off of huge blocks of ice. The result, similar to kakigori (Japanese shaved ice), is much fluffier and lighter than a sno-cone and melts almost instantly on your tongue.
In the Ryukyu ($8), the shaved ice is layered on top of Shochu and then topped with pieces of orange and basil, along with green tea and passionfruit syrups. Finally, it is sprinkled with a little bit of salt. This makes the drink unlike any other frozen drink we've encountered—the combination of fruit, salt, and tea makes for a savory, herbal, almost briny drink. Each sip (or bite) is a bit of an adventure, depending on whether you encounter a sliver of orange, a shard of basil or a grain of salt. Don't linger too long, though, as the drink tends to collapse in on itself quickly. l
Because the alcohol melts ice quickly, Chung says, they pack the ribbons of ice tightly into the glass. The experience is a cross between a snow cone and a slush, and the drinker alternates between a straw and a spoon.
Drumbar Horchata at Drumbar
There's one great creamy slushie cocktail in town, and it's hiding on top of the Raffaelo Hotel in the Gold Coast. Bartender Alex Renshaw was inspired to create a spiked horchata slushie after moving to a new apartment next to a Mexican grocery. "It fills a void on our menu," Renshaw says, "We have a lot of lighter alcohol, vermouth driven cocktails, and people are looking for this, especially with our rooftop."
The Drumbar Horchata ($13) is creamy and smooth, and expands the horizons of slushie drinks into new spirits. Most of the drinks on this list focus on rum, but here Renshaw combines rum (Plantation Five Year) with Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac. The vanilla and cinnamon notes of the cognac and rum are echoed in the horchata, for a sweet, smooth sipper that never shocks the palate.
If the inspiration for the drink was easy, the development process took time. "The typical way to make horchata is to take rice, put it in water and sugar and then combine it with cinnamon, vanilla, and almonds," explains Renshaw. "I could have done that, but when I was doing my R&D, it ended up tasting like water with more water added."
Instead, Renshaw uses a small amount of actual cream along with the standard rice/water mixture, combined with housemade cinnamon syrup and orgeat—a more floral version than The Dawson's, made with orange flower water, almonds and orange peel. Somehow, the subtle flavors make this slushie seem more sophisticated, an appropriate match for the posh, leather-laden interior of Drumbar. It wouldn't do to be slurping on just anything up there.