Where did society go wrong? In most aspects of life, “frozen” or “iced” is universally welcomed as an improvement. It reinvigorated Disney animated films, it vastly improves dairy, and cold brew coffee is a way of life no matter if it’s New Orleans (always necessary) or San Francisco (still consumed, just while in a sweatshirt).
Yet in the world of alcohol, “frozen” quickly solicits a snicker from many drinkers. Images of melty, cough syrup-y beach resort batched drinks or the sugariest (and largest) of Bourbon Street Styrofoam cups (or blinking neon skulls/grenades/fishbowls/etc.) may come to mind. But at Tales of the Cocktail last month in an appropriately humid New Orleans, two of “frozen’s” most qualified evangelists—Booker and Dax’s famed cocktail engineer Dave Arnold and TOTC Director Philip Duff—set out to put the bad rep to bed once and for all.
For starters, frozen drinks have a history that goes well beyond the ICEE. As far back as 400BC, Duff noted humans attempted using snow and pour-over methods to create frozen beverages. But it took one of the greatest scientific minds in history to really propel humanity towards something resembling the frozen drinks as we know them today—Nikola Tesla.
In 1888, Tesla laid the groundwork for the fractional horsepower engine, which today powers small electronic devices like coffee machines or your windshield wipers. Eventually, this led to the breakthrough in 1922, when a man named Stephen Poplawski used Tesla’s invention to create the first device identified as a blender. It all happened in Racine, Wisconsin, coincidentally home of the Hamilton Beach Company. At that point in time, Hamilton had been manufacturing vibrators to help women suffering from “hysteria,” but in the 1930s they partnered with Poplawski and obviously changed direction (history seems to indicate this was the right decision).
Soon after the blender’s mass introduction, the tiki bars of World War II adopted the machine (perhaps most famously Don the Beachbomber). And in Central America, some of the iconic frozen drinks begin to pop up within the next decade or so (Havana saw a Daiquiri, Puerto Rico birthed the Pina Colada). But according to Duff, the ICEE actually does have a fairly pivotal role. In the 1960s, Omar Knediik invents it and the corresponding machine in Coffeyville, Kansas, and he eventually partners with 7-Eleven (though sadly, the contract stipulates he’ll only receive royalties for seven years). Early flavors include things like “moonshine.”
But 7-Eleven soon succumbed to external pressure and quit it with the alcohol-inspired offerings. Someone needed to fill the void since the company also wouldn’t sell ICEE machines to those it feared would repurpose them in this way. That’s when Mariano Martinez, a food entrepreneur, decided he’d invent his own. Martinez eventually retrofitted a soft-serve ice cream machine to become the country’s first Frozen Margarita Machine. The Smithsonian proudly displays this invention today in its National Museum of American History.
Today’s best frozen drinks likely come from the modern day descendant of this, made by a Mexican company named Elmeco. As Arnold salivated over the one used to serve drinks to TOTC attendees, he openly admitted to wanting to steal it. The retail price for a three-container setup with each tank holding three gallons—a machine that plugs into a 110 outlet, so it’s air cooled and quiet enough to have in the bar—is roughly $2,800.
Luckily, Arnold next reassured the audience top notch frozen drinks can happen for much, much less. And as he laid out at TOTC (as well as in his cocktail landmark book Liquid Intelligence), this means paying attention to the details.
“It used to be there was no such thing as too cold,” Arnold said. “But a drink can be—for texture, it becomes sorbet, or flavor, it gets destroyed. Look at a Manhattan, it’s 21-22% alcohol. It would not be frozen. Put a frozen drink out at this alcohol level, it’ll burn people’s tongues. So… rule number one, don’t use liquid nitrogen to freeze drinks—it’s terrible for one-offs and undertrained folks. In England once, a bartender almost killed a person.”
Arnold emphasized strict focus on aspects like alcohol content, temperature, texture, sit-time, and flavor. By prioritizing what’s important from those, a drinks recipe will naturally surface. As supporting research, Arnold and his team at Dax and Booker painstakingly analyzed every cocktail made in-house for Liquid Intelligence, creating a database that revealed precise ratios for cocktails within a variety of drink categories (think stirred versus shaken versus blended versus carbonated, etc.). A frozen strawberry daiquiri simply cannot have the same makeup as one served on the rocks. If the goal is for a frozen drink to be large and last awhile during long sessions in the sun, Arnold proved they must be low ABV (to allow for better, longer freezing) and high in sugar content (to overcome flavor dilution caused by the extra water needed for freezing) if you want the same general taste. (See his recipes for a frozen Corsair versus a non-frozen variety as an example.)
“It’s hard to think there’s an algorithm to make a drink as a former bartender, but…” Duff admitted as everyone sipped Arnold’s Corsair pairing.
Arnold closed by saying that even if making frozen drinks can be as much of a science as their chemical makeup, practice makes perfect. And the best way to do that before ever considering the Elmeco is an everyday home freezer and a Ziploc bag. As he told the Wall Street Journal previously, if a frozen drink can succeed in this type of small batch format, it’ll scale well behind the professional bar as well.
“This [Corsair] was made with salt, water, ice—no technology, it’s a perfect way to test a recipe before filling a drinks machine or blender,” he said. “Literally my freezer at home is full of 20 Ziplocs, because someone is always going to come over and say ‘you wrote a cocktail book, make me a fancy drink.’ You can practice without a machine.”