Summer is here. Time to get your chill on with something fun and icy like a Frozen Daiquiri, Frozen Margarita or blender drink of your choice. While the role of blenders in bars has changed significantly over the years, the popularity of their resulting concoctions has not. From their roots in Prohibition-era Cuba and heyday in ’50s cocktail bars to the dark days of cheap home mixes in the ’70s to their Instagram-fueled resurgence today, we recount the history of the blended cocktail in all of its sun-soaked glory.
El Floridita in Havana (image: Chris Martin)
Of History and Hemingway
When Racine, Wic., chemist Stephen Poplawski patented the modern blender in 1922, little did he know he’d be changing the course of cocktail history. Blended drinks like the Frozen Daiquiri are thought to have originated in Cuba around the time of Prohibition, says drinks historian Elizabeth Pearce, the owner of New Orleans booze tour company Drink & Learn and author of the book “Drink Dat.” “Americans got to know Cuba because of Prohibition, because it was one of the closest places you could go to drink legally,” she says.
One of those Americans was Ernest Hemingway, who played an interesting role in helping to popularize the Frozen Daiquiris that were being mixed in the early 1900s at iconic Havana bar El Floridita. It was there that legendary owner and bartender Constantino Ribalaigua Vert (the so-called Cocktail King of Cuba) is thought to have mixed more than 10 million Daiquiris in his 40 years behind the bar, according to David A. Embury’s classic cocktail tome “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.”
Hemingway (second from right) at El Floridita
According to Philip Greene, the author of “To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion,” Hemingway would stay at a hotel down the street from El Floridita in the early 1930s when he “wanted to get away from Key West.” The author became a big fan of the drink, as one can surmise from a 1939 letter he wrote to his son, which Greene cites in his book: “I drank a few highly frozen Daiquiris just to see what their effect would be,” wrote Hemingway. “(It was moderately terrific and made me feel a friend of all mankind.)”
Hemingway typically ordered his Daiquiris as doubles without sugar, says Greene, and the novelist would later have a drink called the E. Henmiway Special (sic) named after him at El Floridita. In his book, Greene recalls one particular tale that Hemingway recounted in which he and a friend claimed to have drank “seventeen double frozen Daiquiris apiece in the course of a day without leaveing (sic) except for an occasional trip to the can,” later stating that he was neither drunk nor hungover the next day.
Blending Daiquiris at El Floridita
“He traveled globally and drank locally,” says Greene. “He was well-known as a regular at El Floridita.” Greene notes that while Hemingway did not write about the Daiquiri in his prose until “Islands in the Stream” was published in 1970, nine years after his death, other authors of the era such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Graham Greene also wrote about the drink.
Yet blenders weren’t widely used for mixology until the introduction of the Waring blender (originally called the Miracle Mixer) in 1937 by the charismatic Fred Waring, the bandleader of the popular group Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians. Pearce says the Waring blender (which is still in use today) helped popularize the blended cocktail as “it made it easier for a bar to make multiple blended drinks.”
One such bar was Hollywood’s iconic post-Prohibition watering hole Don the Beachcomber (now located in Huntington Beach, Calif.), where a young man named Ernest Gantt (who later legally changed his name to Donn Beach) is widely credited with having invented the Tiki drink. When a writer from “The New York Tribune” sampled one of his novelty rum-based concoctions (rum was the cheapest spirit available at the time, according to the bar’s website) and spread the word of his love of the drink to friends including Charlie Chaplin, the spot became a hit with locals and celebs enamored with original Beachcomber classics such as the 25-cent Sumatra Kula.
Going Off the Rails
With the Piña Colada emerging from Puerto Rico in the 1950s, blended drinks enjoyed a heyday in the ’50s and ’60s until the introduction of store-bought mixes for Margaritas and other blended drinks in the late ’60s and early ’70s. That’s when everything “went to hell,” according to Pearce. The popularity of cheap ready-made mixes would lead to an era when blended drinks became synonymous with poor quality and were looked down upon by many in the cocktail world.
Instead of being made with real ingredients, as they had been in the past, classics like the Margarita and Daiquiri had fallen prey to cheap gimmickry tailor-made for mass consumption. “Blender drinks got relegated to this area of the crap drink, which they were for a while, especially when they were being made with mixes,” says Pearce.
Around the same time, Mariano Martinez, the owner of Mariano’s Hacienda and La Hacienda Ranch in Dallas, had created what is thought to be the world’s first slushie after he modified an old soft-serve ice cream machine and used it to produce Frozen Margaritas, according to the restaurant’s website. His makeshift Frozen Margarita machine became a hit and spread across the country, with Martinez’s first Margarita machine even earning its place in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 2005.
Blended drinks eventually made a comeback around the late ‘90s when bartenders trying to revive classic cocktail culture rediscovered their roots, says Peace. Blended drink advocates of the time “had to fight to be taken seriously for this thing they believed in,” she says, and to convince people “that these cocktails mattered and they were important. They had a history and a gravitas.”
The Modern-Day Comeback
Today, blended cocktails are so popular that Ryan Rogers, the owner of Louisville, Ky.’s Feast BBQ, thinks we may soon reach a period of “peak frozen drink.” Feast is known for its popular bourbon slushies, which it started selling in 2013. Today, slushie sales are now comparable to craft beer sales at its two locations. “We sell just as many slushies as we do craft beer. It has been pretty huge for us,” says Rogers, adding that the slushies are also a nice way to introduce bourbon to people who might not otherwise be inclined to drink the spirit.
Bourbon Slushie at Feast in Louisville
“It’s something that gets a pass and makes drinking more accessible and fun,” Rogers says of the frozen slushie. “There’s a perception when you’re talking about bourbon; people get all high and mighty about it. But you throw it in a slushie machine with some ginger ale, and no one’s complaining.”
Rogers adds that the photogenic nature of the colorful cocktails is Instagram magic, which in turn leads to greater popularity for the drinks. “We’re not taking ourselves too seriously,” he says. “That’s what’s changed [in cocktail culture]. It’s more about creating a vibe and making that communal vibe fun.”
Frozen Pink Lady at Bryant’s in Milwaukee
Milwaukee’s widely respected Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge has been serving blender drinks since the bar started slinging cocktails in 1938, says owner John Dye. These days, the popular bar offers patrons around 500 different cocktails, about half of which are made in blenders. Dye says their blenders are often used more lightly than your typical beach or Tiki drink, with the blender mostly giving their cocktails “more of a vigorous shake” than a total transformation of consistency.
“We’re heavily dependent on blenders,” says Dye. “It’s part of the methodology of our drinks.” He adds that blenders are also used as a nod to history and are especially useful in the making of the number of ice cream drinks that are also a hit at the bar.
Negroni Slushie at Parson’s in Chicago
Like the bourbon slushie at Feast, the Negroni Slushie at Chicago’s Parson’s Chicken & Fish has exploded in popularity in recent years as the restaurant and bar looks to open its third location later in 2019 in Nashville. Beverage director Charlie Schott, who invented the drink in 2013, says that on a popular summer day that sales for the Negroni Slushie can total 50 percent of all booze sales.
“There’s a bit of novelty to it,” Schott says, in trying to explain the slushie’s enduring popularity. “I don’t think people had ever seen something that wasn’t necessarily sweet formatted that way. It’s fun and cute, and everyone wants stuff to be fun and cute now.”
Both Pearce and Greene agree, adding that the popularity of blended drinks like the Daiquiri achieve part of their lasting appeal due to their strong ties to a sense of nostalgia and the place you were when you drank them. “They are drinks that are best to be drank outdoors, whether at a swim-up bar or on a balcony,” says Pearce. “There’s something innocent, naïve and childish about a frozen drink.”
“The Daiquiri and Piña Colada are going to transport you, in the same way that a Corona is meant to transport you to the beach,” says Greene. “You feel like you’re doing it right when you have this drink in your hand in the summer.”