Occupying the center of a Venn diagram where Industrial Progress and Callow Wantonness overlap is a shiny, high-pitched object. It is the Waring Blender.
Introduced in 1937 at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago (and originally billed as the Miracle Mixer), the blender was a compact silo of mechanical might, something powerful enough to defeat the stuff that sank the Titanic, yet compact enough to sit on a bar top. About a year after its debut, the mixer was rebranded as the Waring Blendor, with the intentional misspelling enabling the owners to claim a trademark. (The patent was for a “disintegrating mixer for producing fluent substances.”) And Waring? He was best known as the bandleader of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, one of the most popular dance bands of the 1930s.
One day after performing on the radio, Waring was approached by an inventor named Frederick Osius. His fellow inventor, Stephen Poplawski, had been working on a powerful motorized mixer for more than a decade and Osius sought to improve upon it. It blended via a propeller at the bottom of a tall, sealed glass jar, marking an improvement over the earlier wand-like mixers sold since 1911 by Hamilton Beach and common in milkshake shops.
Waring—who had a degree in architectural engineering—was intrigued. He agreed to back it with a $25,000 investment, and after some tweaking it went into production. He lent it his name and touted it on his tours; it took off, ushering in a small mania for puréed foods. It also proved a boon for researchers in medical labs, who employed it in the liquefying of feces and frog testicles, among other things. (On a less disturbing medical note, Jonas Salk used a Waring in coming up with his polio vaccine.)
But it was in frozen adult potions that the Waring Blender (as it was eventually spelled) made its most lasting mark. For the rise of the blender occurred a mere three years after Don the Beachcomber opened his first bar in Los Angeles, and where he invented the exotic tropical cocktail, later called the tiki drink. Recipe and machine would eventually meet and establish a new class of cocktail—the frozen slushy drink.
The history of cocktails from 1800 to about 1950 is really the story of the miniaturization of cold. Cocktail ice started as massive blocks wrenched from frozen ponds and shipped south in insulated ships. These helped spur the early 19th-century cocktail boom, with bartenders wielding ice picks to hack out suitably sized chunks. Other hand tools were soon conscripted, including mallets, canvas bags and planers that led to the making of everything from pebble ice for cobblers to snow-like drifts to pack silver julep cups.
The Waring Blender became vital almost overnight. The tiki bars then cropping up found that a blender made much shorter work of producing icy drinks than shaking with shaved ice. The Waring crossed the Straits of Florida to Havana, where it was embraced by legendary bartender Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, famous for his Daiquiri variations. By 1939, cocktail writer Charles H. Baker Jr. felt the need to “remind our readers that a decent electric mixer is just as necessary on any well-equipped bar these days as a horse in a stable.” He cited the “new style Daiquiri” as one of the drinks now requiring machinery. “There is no wrist strong or deft enough to make any mix of liquid and cracked ice turned into frosted sherbet-like consistency so essential to these examples.” (He went on to graciously add, “We do not even know Mr. Waring, but we like his music and his Blender.”)
The 1950s through the ’70s flowered as the golden age of the blender drink, and the sounds of high-volume whirring filled barrooms. Drinks like the Piña Colada were invented thanks to Mr. Waring, and Margaritas made the move from shaker to blender. (In 1971 the Margarita became captive to the DQ-like frozen-drink machine, from which it was not freed until relatively recently.)
The blender continued to be viewed askance by the league of cocktail purists, who valued the “chukka-chukka” sound of a shaken drink. But most holdouts died or capitulated, even including dyspeptic novelist Kingsley Amis, who wrote in the ’70s, “I hate the things, but I cannot think of a manual method that will do the job effectively.”
Many speakeasy revivalist bars have eschewed blenders, preferring to do everything by hand, like mustachioed cabinet makers with their leather aprons and hand-held Dozuki saws. Others find the noise can disrupt the vintage atmosphere for which they strive. Having a blender on a bar is like living near an airport—convenient and modern, yet annoying as all hell. Some bars have dealt with this by entombing mixers in transparent sound-dampening boxes. It’s my experience that only drinks without character emerge from these.
Yes, the noise can be unfortunate when you’re enjoying a quiet conversation at the bar. But if you find yourself perturbed by the din and clamor, and feel as if you’ve suddenly taken up residence in a machine metal shop, allow yourself a moment to savor the sound. It’s an echo of the 1930s. The golden age of industry is tapping you on the shoulder, inquiring if you would care for a refreshing frozen drink.
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