Behind the Bar
The Frozen Cocktail Trend Gives Reason to Dust Off Your Bar's Old Blender
Does watching your aunt load up her wine glass with ice cubes during the family summer sojourn to the beach make you cringe? Well, good news: it’s officially the summer of frosé — at least, if Bon Appetit magazine is to be believed. Who needs ice cubes when the wine itself is a slushy?
As it turns out, frosé is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. All over the country, classic drinks are getting the Hurricane treatment, emerging granita-like from slushy machines behind bars from New Orleans to Louisville and beyond.
And NOLA, world capital of the daiquiri machine, is likely the nexus point for the trend. At Café Henri, which opened just a few weeks ago in the Crescent City, the presence of a frozen Negroni on the bar menu was a given; when Nick Detrich and his partners bought the business that previously occupied their building, it came with a daiquiri machine.
“One thing that helped to propagate [the profusion of frozen cocktails in New Orleans] was dry food daiquiri shops opening up in the '80s,” Detrich says. “People were drawn to that, and it helped push it out into other sorts of places. It’s so damn hot here all the time. For ten months out of the year, you can have a frozen drink and it’s frozen drink weather. The daiquiri shop aesthetic became a big thing. You walk in and see a row of those big silver machines with a porthole window and you see a bunch of different colors and it draws you in.”
In honor of their hometown, Café Henri has adapted their Negroni recipe a bit, replacing Campari with Peychaud’s Aperitivo and choosing Miro sweet vermouth for the look it gives the drink in the glass.
“Not everyone is on board with the bitter aperitivo cocktail, so this is a bit more approachable,” says Detrich.
Further north, in Athens, Georgia, chefs Peter Dale and Patrick Stubbers’ frozen iteration of a classic Negroni at Seabear Oyster Bar has made them the top seller of Campari in their state. From the moment they opened, the frozen Negroni, inspired by a similar concoction Dale’s assistant had at Parson’s Fish & Chips in Chicago, was an iconic menu item for them.
“I think the response was due a lot to the fact that the cocktail itself is having a big resurgence. There’s a Negroni week, and people are embracing bitter flavors more than they used to,” Stubbers says. His restaurant goes through up to a case and a half of the bitter spirit each month, more than many bars use in a year, he says.
The Negroni slush has been such a hit, Dale started offering another slushy drink, frosé, at his other restaurant, The National.
In bourbon country, Louisville’s Feast BBQ has made a crowd favorite out of a rotating selection of bourbon slushies.
“When we had opened, our focus of the restaurant was on barbecue, bourbon and beer. We had craft beers, like 120 bourbons. But we didn’t have any drinks that were a little easier to drink, and we wanted to make something a little more fun as opposed to Manhattans and Sazeracs,” says co-owner Ryan Rogers. “In this little town that we were in, people would come in looking for daiquiris and fuzzy navels. We didn’t want to make that, but we asked ourselves, how do we use bourbon to make something these folks would like? We wanted something a little more palatable.”
He and his partners went in for a daiquiri machine and threw together a slushy version of bourbon and ginger ale. “We tried to fancy it up with a ginger shrub and bitters and it just killed. We started rotating flavors every month. On the weekends, we sell more bourbon slushies than we sell craft beer.”
In a part of the country that’s serious about its bourbon, serving up slushies with flavors like mocha and apple cider might seem a bit irreverent. But Rogers says Feast’s playful take on their frozen drink offerings is a deliberate choice that’s about making customers feel comfortable and at home, providing them with great cocktails without a lot of pomp or pretension.
“We went through this period that was a backlash against '80s and '90s cocktails, where bars became really serious. We have to hand chip ice! We have to have a bunch of stirred drinks! Not everyone wants to think that much about their drinks – they just want something fun they can share with their friends,” Rogers says.
Back in New Orleans, slushy traditions both new and old live side by side. While places like Café Henri and Willa Jean are updating the Bourbon Street staple for palates attuned to fine dining, the French Quarter continues to churn out the colorful, boozy drinks that are at least partly to thank for the current profusion of daiquiri machines behind bars all over the country.
Nick Detrich is just as happy to sip on one of those as he is to put away a frozen Negroni from his own bar. “Every Mardi Gras morning, I try to get a purple drank from Laffite’s on Bourbon,” he says. “It’s a great old bar on the corner there that has been there for hundreds of years at this point that has no power except to power the coolers. It’s lit by candles at night. It’s right in the heart of the Quarter, so it’s a good first stop.”