Elevated Boozy Slushies

Remember the frozen cocktails of yore? With the dawn of the modern cocktail movement, those neon-hued sugar bombs are being replaced by elevated versions incorporating fresh fruit and juices, fringe spirits and unexpected flavor combinations.

At Parson’s Chicken and Fish in Chicago, bar manager Charlie Schott has taken the frozen cocktail to a whole new level (even sharing his wisdom at the inaugural Chicago Cocktail Summit earlier this summer with a seminar titled “Rage with the Machine”). His full frozen lineup includes a classic Margarita, a Dark and Stormy, the much-lauded Negroni Slushy and his personal favorite the Purple Drink. “Initially I had set out to do a frozen sangria riff, but in my journey I stumbled on the combination of wine, port, sugar and orange blossom water (which is commonly used as an aromatic element in mediterranean desserts),” says Schott. “The result was both a new and familiar flavor.”

Aperitif wines are also finding their way into slushies, adding bitter complexity and a decidedly grown-up flavor. At Mother’s Ruin, co-founder TJ Lynch uses a base of gin and Aperol, complemented by lemon, fresh mint, honey and a dash of Peychaud’s Bitters for the Spring in Your Pants Slushy. At The Gander, bartender Susie Ye also uses Aperol to balance the Tequila Watermelon Slushy, with tequila, lime and fresh-pressed watermelon juice. “Cocktails are like food in the sense that they need seasoning and acid,” says Ye. “If you’re going to use a sweeter base like watermelon, you need something bitter to balance it.”

Keeping fresh fruit in the forefront, bar manager Andy Zolnierowicz at Fremont in Chicago forgoes the frozen drink machine for his Cosmo slushy. Creating a sorbet-like base, he cooks down fresh cranberries and raspberries with sugar and lemon zest. Once frozen, the vibrant magenta mixture gets scooped into a glass and topped with vodka and cointreau. “Once combined it is just as fluffy as a slushy out of a frozen drink machine,” says Zolnierowicz. Also fruit-forward but taking a different tack in production, the newly opened sports bar Century in Portland, Oregon, uses not one but three slushy machines—one for each bar and the upstairs deck. Their frequently rotating offerings range from blueberry-pomegranate margaritas to coconut-apricot daiquiris and, bowing to the frosé madness sweeping the nation, a frosty rosé/ginger ale blend. To keep up quantities without compromising taste, Century uses fresh juices and fruit purées from The Commissary.

While some classic cocktails naturally lend themselves to frozen form, like the blended Singapore Sling at Happiest Hour, others are taking slightly more experimental approaches. Embracing the Asian flavors of the food, Momofuku Noodle Bar‘s John deBary is blending up a spicy lychee slushy with white wine. And at The Skylark, Johnny Swet complements the floral notes of gin and elderflower liqueur in his Green Tea Honey Slushy with matcha, lemon and honey. “Just the variety of places now making high-end slushies has opened the door to some exciting drinks,” says Swet. “If you use quality spirits and fresh juices, why not?”

These machines really only existed in convenience stores and college bars before,” says Schott. “Once we got the technology into the hands of thoughtful and creative professionals, it really took off,” he says. “No one is intimidated by a slushy, even if it’s bitter and complex like the Negroni.”