The summer sun can be oppressive. But cocktail snobbery can be worse.
When the mercury rises for the next few months, to the point where even late into your post-work happy hour you’re unable escape the heat, you want a drink that will cool you down, while getting you buzzed, but not too smashed going into the night. This is not Manhattan sipping weather. This is the time for a frozen Daiquiri or a frozen Margarita. But your favorite craft cocktail bar won’t serve that to you, even as you languish away while the bar’s AC only intermittently kicks on. There will be no boozy smoothie for you, you philistine.
See, a blended cocktail is something serious bartenders don’t make and serious drinks shouldn’t want. Ultimately, what’s keeping us from the perfect summertime cocktail isn’t quality, it’s snobbery. While the snootiness actually served a very important function to make us drink well again, the era of cocktail snobbery is over.
And you shouldn’t be embarrassed to drink a boozy smoothie.
The craft cocktail revolution is a correction. Americans had gone a couple generations drinking horrid concoctions filled with high-fructose corn syrup and food coloring, with nary a piece of fresh fruit in sight. We needed to be pulled back from the brink of alcoholic ruin. That happened because a group of bars embraced an era of drinking long before Appletinis and Red Bull and vodka ruled. These bars innovated and then spread their gospel. They ditched premade mixes, found fresh ingredients, sourced better booze and embraced the craft of making a drink. Praise be.
But these bars, like Milk & Honey in New York, ditched not only shitty technique, they also cast out the loud, loutish behavior of the raucous bars slinging shitty drinks. It made for a more subdued and studied vibe at these craft cocktail dens. And that environment itself became synonymous with good drinks. Bars who took crafting their cocktails seriously needed to act serious.
That craft cocktail ethos clashes with boozy smoothies on a few fronts. First, they’ve traditionally been made with dog shit ingredients. At a terrible chain restaurant I once worked at, bartenders just poured a carton of neon mix into a blender with some ice, added a few glugs of vodka and that was it—diabetes and cirrhosis in one glass.
Second, these blended drinks weren’t part of the classic cocktail canon, so aspiring craft bartenders avoided them and drinkers didn’t request them. “The easiest way to gain credibility is to make classic cocktails,” says Giuseppe Gonzalez, owner of Suffolk Arms in New York City. A properly shaken Daiquiri like ones that Hemmingway fancied mean you’re a good and serious drinker. A man of letters. A frozen one signaled you’re a hedonist of ill repute.
Why a hedonist? “The blender has a stigma of low-quality, beach-front bars and all-you-can drink resorts,” Gonzalez says. Blended cocktails are associated with the sun-drenched party huts of the sort early craft cocktail bars defined themselves against. The blender itself could also kill the relaxed reverence of a cocktail bar with a loud whirr. The revolution corrected for all these things, but in the case of boozy smoothies, they overcorrected.
That question of “why not?” was usually answered by the norms of the craft cocktail community looking down on such an idea.
Now a new wave of bartenders is swinging the pendulum back, and enthusiastically crafting blended beverages. And they’re chipping away at all the old hang-ups about boozy smoothies. “With my generation it’s not a weird thing,” says Brynn Smith of Rossoblu in Downtown LA. “I grew up with Slurpees. When I turned 21 I’d add shitty vodka to them. Now I run a cocktail program and if I can concoct one with fresh ingredients, why not?”
That question of “why not?” was usually answered by the norms of the craft cocktail community looking down on such an idea. But the fealty to the old norms is fading. “Every year that need to be a stickler diminishes more,” Gonzalez says.
It also opens up a whole avenue of creativity for bartenders. And embrace of blended cocktails allows them to play with a totally different mouthfeel for their drinks. Usually a full-bodied drink is thickened with cream or egg white, but a frozen drink can give a fuller mouthfeel while still being refreshing. That icy coldness, combined with being refreshing makes them great for summer. When done well, the results are undeniably delicious. “I’ve yet to meet someone who was pissed off or super bummed out drinking a well-made Pina Colada or Pink Squirrel,” says Dustin Drankiewicz, bartender at Deadbolt in Chicago.
This summer, Smith plans to serve frozen cocktails using high quality spirits and fresh fruit to guests who can sit out in the sun in the restaurant’s large patio. Gonzalez already has blenders working overtime Suffolk Arms and Drankiewicz to open a craft bar that unapologetically features them on the menu. They’re showing great cocktails can be made in places that aren’t just quiet cocktail dens. There can be more fun in the bar world, and more fun drinks as well.
That’s not to say you, the drinker, shouldn’t proceed with caution. “Quality control on these type of beverages is a must because you can fuck them up pretty easily,” Drankiewicz says. Walking along Bourbon Street in New Orleans, you’ll find some frozen alcohol and corn syrup concoctions that will rot your insides. For blended cocktails, more bars may be making them, but it’s like the early days of the craft cocktail movement where quality varies wildly. It’s ok to be choosy about who makes your boozy smoothie.
The key thing is to not just dismiss frozen cocktails out of hand, especially for reasons having nothing to do with how good a drink tastes. We’re not telling you to live in some postmodern hellscape where nothing matters and there is no truth and no objective measure of quality. Shit is nuts in the world enough right now that you don’t need us shaking up your Etch-a-Sketch entirely. However, we want you to keep your eye on the ball. Don’t get caught up in all the pageantry surrounding your cocktail at a bar. Focus on drinking cocktails—frozen or otherwise—made with good ingredients and proper technique, because that’s what will make them delicious. And then drink whatever the hell you want.
Jeremy Repanich is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @racefortheprize.