If we were to rank drinks by their intelligence, or at least our perceptions thereof, most frozen cocktails would lurk near the dopey bottom, slumped alongside Kami-kaze shots and Fuzzy Navels and anything containing Red Bull. (Top-notch bourbon, neat, and certain vintages of Bordeaux might duke it out for the valedictorian slot.) The combination of crushed ice and booze seems to produce a kind of blithe idiocy: Picture the tourist hordes on Bourbon Street, clasping giant souvenir go-cups of Bananasicle daiquiris as they go teeter-tottering into the unfocusing twilight. Brain freeze, squared. This isn’t to knock blithe idiocy, which has its place in life. It is, however, to knock the taste of blithe idiocy, which is what most frozen cocktails deposit on the tongue.
’Twasn’t always so. The varieties of ice put to use by nineteenth-century bartenders, as any cocktail geek will tell you, were myriad. They chipped, shaved, flaked, slivered, and crushed ice into a gamut of drinks known as brambles, swizzles, cobblers, juleps, and smashes. If these weren’t precisely frozen drinks, as we know them today, it’s only because our popular definition of what constitutes a frozen drink is so limited. Credit (or blame) for this goes to the electric blender, which like many other of our plug-in conveniences gained widespread acceptance in the mid-twentieth century. As the cocktail historian Kevin Liu has written, the blender inspired a home economist named Mabel Stegner to devise a frozen strawberry daiquiri for a 1952 recipe book. The drink was a novelty hit—so easy! Bzzzzzz—and it upturned the entire category. Nearly every booze-laden blender drink that followed, that French Quarter Bananasicle included, adhered to Stegner’s candied slurry formula. These were cartoon cocktails, their relation to their nineteenth-century forebears like that of Fred Flintstone to an actual caveman.
Today, courtesy of the cocktail revival, it’s not hard to track down a decent bramble or smash at an haute cocktailery, especially the kind of joint that bills its ice as “bespoke.” Bellocq in New Orleans, for instance, lists eight oldfangled cobblers on its menu, smart and subtle concoctions poured over pebbled ice. These are noble refreshments, liquid artifacts from the pre-convenience past, whose return we should welcome. Equally welcome, though, is the less archaeological approach of bartenders such as Abigail Gullo at SoBou, also in New Orleans, who’s been rejuvenating the frozen drinks category from another angle.
Gullo is a transplant to New Orleans—she originally hails from New York—who fell in love with Sno-Balls, that Gulf Coast variation-slash-improvement on snow cones. Part of the appeal was texture: Sno-Balls are made with ice so finely shaved that the effect is like eating actual snow. One of her favorite varieties is the iconic almond-flavored Pink Squirrel, which inspired her to create a boozy homage she calls a Pink Pigeon. Amaretto stands in for the almond syrup, sour cherry syrup gives it some sweet sling, and white rum provides the kick. It’s delicious. But it’s also got shifting depths of flavors, things to say. “As it dilutes,” she says, “the drink changes. That’s the fun part of a Sno-Ball.”
It’s also what a blender can’t replicate. With a blender, “you’re overdiluting it so quickly that you have no room for nuance,” Gullo says. Nuance in a frozen cocktail will strike some as oxymoronic, but Gullo isn’t alone in exploring it. Half a dozen blocks from SoBou, the Cocktail Bar at the Windsor Court Hotel offers an Aviation Sno-Ball, with that classic gin–and–crème de violette cocktail served in spoonable form. At Grand Cru in Baltimore, near the Pimlico racetrack, they’ve rejiggered the Black-Eyed Susan, official cocktail of the Preakness Stakes, as a Sno-Ball, with rye whiskey, rum, Cointreau, and orange and lemon juices coloring the ice. Even simpler, and wildly sublime, is drizzling absinthe over shaved ice.
Home bartenders need not be intimidated. Electric ice shavers are a minor investment. The low-end Hamilton Beach model I own set me back about seventeen bucks. “I know a bartender who uses a vintage Snoopy snow cone machine on the bar,” says Gullo, who also advocates filling a clean old pillowcase with ice and bashing it with a mallet. (The pillowcase absorbs excess water. And the bashing is gargantuan fun.) Work in layers when adding booze to the ice, but after that, don’t work at all. You’ve got sharp-witted refreshment in your hand—a frozen cocktail you can actually talk to.