The Indispensables is Liquor.com’s series devoted to the classic cocktails drinkers of every skill need in their arsenal. Each installment features one signature recipe, assembled from intel by the best bartenders. The Indispensables may not save the world, but it’ll surely rescue your cocktail hour.
The status of a celebrity icon does not often outlast its time period. Case in point: When I asked my 15-year-old niece if she wanted our upcoming movie marathon night to be a bevy of Julia Roberts flicks, she responded, “Julia who?”
This applies even if the celebrity in question gets a drink named after her. How many people, for instance, know who the sweet, silent actress Mary Pickford was when sipping on the eponymous drink of white rum, maraschino liqueur, grenadine and pineapple juice? Do images of a sultry Jean Harlow immediately come to mind when a bartender mixes equal parts rum and sweet vermouth, decorated with a slender lemon twist? Probably not.
But sometimes celebrity drink status actually begins to eclipse its namesake, and in no drink is that more apparent than the Shirley Temple. The classic mix of ginger ale and grenadine with a squeeze of lemon or lime topped with maraschino cherries (plural, please!) is the world’s first mocktail. And it’s alive and well.
Why has this sugary sweet concoction stood the test of time, even if its ringleted child superstar namesake hasn’t? Temple herself shed her former image, leaving filmdom to become the United States ambassador to Ghana and, later, Czechoslovakia. Her name even took on a shade of seriousness when she married and became Shirley Black.
“Sorry to say, I doubt you’re going to find anyone doing anything exciting with that drink,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the owner of Portland, Ore.’s Clyde Common and champion of woe-begotten cocktails. And while that seems to be true, so too is the fact that many drinkers prefer it for precisely that reason: its sweet familiarity.
“I think when people go to a bar and don’t know what to order, they order something familiar, with or without alcohol,” says Tara Heffernon, the co-owner of Duke’s Spirited Cocktails in Healdsburg, Calif. The interesting thing about Duke’s Shirley Temple is that the bar’s license is the type that forbids anyone under 21 from entering, and yet the Shirley Temple sits on the bar list with other more bespoke booze-free drinks.
Heffernon says she definitely makes more vodka-spiked Dirty Shirleys than regular nonalcoholic ones, but still they’re made with care and requested enough to keep on regular rotation. “We serve it tall in a soda fountain glass with our 1 1/4-inch Kold-Draft ice cubes topped with Fabbri amarena cherries,” she says. And it goes without saying that Duke’s grenadine is house-made from fresh pomegranates.
(illustration: Justin Shiels)
It’s the familiarity and ease of order that are the keys to the Shirley Temple’s longevity. Also: Kids just love it. “Children see a parent drinking a cocktail, and they want one too,” says Colleen Kenny, the bar manager of Nostrana in Portland where she serves a version dubbed the Don’t Call Me Shirley with house-made club soda, homemade grenadine, fresh lemon and lime, and amarena cherries.
“It’s a fun way to let them drink something that’s special when they’re eating out. I drank them all the time when eating out with my parents. It’s always consistent,” says Kenny. “We call ours Don’t Call Me Shirley because you’re not getting the scary, cloying syrup that people are used to. It’s been really successful. We’ve had it for many years now.”
Where did the world’s most famous mocktail make its debut? Temple was infamously unfond of her namesake drink and put the blame for its invention on the departed Hollywood see-and-be-seen eatery The Brown Derby. Others have taken credit for its invention, like Chasen’s in Hollywood and The Royal Hawaiian hotel in Waikiki.
And then there was the vague mention of a bartender named Smith “Smithy” Lowther of Palm Desert who claimed in a 1985 letter to former Desert Sun newspaper columnist Larry Boodry that he invented the drink when working at a Hollywood hot spot, although he didn’t mention particulars like where, when and how. A search for ol’ Smithy to confirm his claim is as fruitless as a jar of formaldehyde-soaked maraschino cherries.
Temple, who died in 2014 at the age of 85, disliked the drink so much that she wound up in court twice, fighting a couple of enterprising companies that wanted to bottle the famed nonalcoholic treat with her former child-star name on it. She won both battles. Would cans of Shirley Temples have been as popular as Coca-Cola? Hard to say. But while Temple’s charming black-and-white films are a dusty remnant of a bygone era, the drink she so disliked has kept her name in permanent rotation, with no end in sight.
“Having accessible ingredients is a good reason why it has lasted,” says Heffernon. “It doesn’t require fresh juicing or any ingredient that people don’t already have. “It’s sweet, fruity and simple, so any bar can have it.” And she points out, despite what many parents want to believe about their kids’ innate superiority, most don’t have sophisticated palates. “Kids aren’t usually ordering a nonalcoholic Collins or an Arnold Palmer.”
At Duke’s, though, there are no kids allowed; Shirley Temple couldn’t order a Shirley Temple there. But even grown-ups appear to crave the sweet familiarity and comfort of the known.
“When we talk about our nonalcoholic menu, we’re focusing on what guests like in a cocktail experience. And we like to support that,” says Heffernon. And as to that familiarity, well, that’s part of the charm too. “My best friend hasn’t had alcohol for 10 years, and the Shirley Temple is her fave. Even at a dive bar, she can get something familiar that’s not just soda water. Every person should get to feel the magic of a cocktail experience created for them, instead of just handing someone soda water and calling it a day.”