For the past 18 months, I’ve been running a poolside rooftop bar at an upscale downtown Los Angeles hotel. Before that I ran a craft cocktail bar a block from the beach in Santa Monica. I’ve spent most of my career trying to satisfy guests’ demand for a Martini with a view and a crushable waterfront cocktail. Surprisingly, the solution to both problems is often a frozen drink.
Frozen or blender drinks often get a bad rap but when approached like any craft cocktail they can be a sublime experience. Just think about the difference between having a Manhattan in a dive bar versus in a whiskey bar. The thought, preparation, and attention to detail that separates those two orders when applied to frozen drinks can have the same elevating effect.
While these frosty concoctions were once served just between Memorial Day and Labor Day, they’ve become popular year-round in top bars across the country. So, read on for my tips to create your own signature blender cocktail.
The first step in creating a blender drink is, as with any tipple, perfecting the recipe. But there are a few unique considerations when making frozen cocktails.
For starters, you will see a lot of different high-end machines behind bars these days freezing a variety of concoctions. But the sound of a blender firing up is as evocative for frozen drink lovers as is the tones of a dial-up modem for early Internet surfers. And who doesn’t want to be like Tom Cruise in Cocktail serving up a frosty Daiquiri on the Beach? A blender also produces a wide variety of drink options with a minimal footprint on your kitchen counter.
The essential step to making any frozen drink is, of course, freezing it. And when it comes to the difference between a good and a great blender drink it’s all about the ice.
Just like any shaken or stirred cocktail, the key to a frozen concoction is dilution. When blending you are fully incorporating your dilution. This is where most people lose control of the drink and it turns into a watered down, gloopy mess. When working on any blender recipe measuring the ice is just as important as measuring your alcohol and syrups. This ensures a consistent beverage.
Part of what sets a frozen drink apart from the crowd is the texture. Is the drink too thin? Too thick? Too chunky? Chances are that if your drink’s texture is off, so is your blending time. Remember practice makes perfect. By using a set recipe, including the ice, you can learn exactly how long to pulse your blender to achieve perfect texture and dilution. This is no different than learning how long to properly shake or stir a drink and it requires just as much precision and thoughtfulness. And all blenders I have found are different, so you need to experiment if you’re bartending at your friend’s house and using their machine.
The other thing to consider is that the dilution doesn’t necessarily need to come from the ice. Think of your drink as an alcoholic smoothie! Frozen fruits and veggies can add dilution and texture to your cocktail.
But no matter what you add to the mix, record the quantity of each ingredient. This is the best piece of advice I can give to anyone doing any liquid R&D. Every small change, no matter how insignificant you think it might be, affects the final product. There’s nothing worse than creating a flavorful, layered masterpiece and being unable to recreate it. Write it all down and be consistent.
Now that you are properly freezing, measuring and blending your drink there’s another unique factor to consider: temperature. These drinks are meant to be served cold. Very cold. Frozen. And when drinks are this cold, flavors can become muted. (This is the reason why Jägermeister is often served super cold.) To counteract this phenomenon, you need more fat, sugar, and salt than you think is reasonable. There’s a reason Coco Lopez shows up in so many classic frozen drinks. It adds a richness that binds a drink together, which is why a Piña Colada works so well frozen.
I’ve actually found that a blend of cream of coconut and coconut milk adds that richness without triggering the inevitable sugar crash. You can also get a phenomenal lift to the drink by adding sea salt. A properly measured pinch of salt will really make those flavors pop while helping to cut through the heavier elements of the drink.
The last thing to consider is batching and syrups. While it’s fun to blend whole blueberries into your drink, you’ll actually get more flavor and color by turning those blueberries into a syrup. You also gain consistency. An ounce of blueberry syrup will always give the same flavor, while a handful of blueberries will vary. Using a syrup also allows you to batch.
Batching may be a dirty word in some circles but not to me. I love being a host and also the life of the party. And if I throw a party, I want to mix drinks for all my guests, but I don’t want that to make me so busy I can’t relax and talk to my friends.
By testing your personal recipe and making a big batch of it you can cut out half a dozen steps while still producing a phenomenal drink. Though, this does require you to think one step ahead, since not every flavor scales up on a 1-to-1 ratio. So, knowing how large a batch you’re making, and testing and tasting your recipe every step of the way will give your drink the extra sparkle that is truly immeasurable. Once you whip up a big batch, stick the pitcher from the blender in the freezer. If there’s enough liquor in the mix, it won’t freeze solid.
These are just some of the unique challenges that come along with making the perfect frozen drink. It requires constant tinkering, but if you keep these factors in mind you’ll end up with a cocktail that is just as elegant, unique, and personal as any Martini variation.