About Those Classic Ice Cream Cocktails

From a 1930s mix of "Chablis, gin and ice cream" to the Midwest’s beloved Pink Squirrel, a look at the evolution of the ice cream cocktail.

Who was the first to add ice cream to an alcoholic beverage? While there might not be a definitive ice cream cocktail Patient Zero, we do know that by the late 19th century the two were already well-acquainted bedfellows. 

The German-born barman William Schmidt’s 1892 The Flowing Bowl includes ice cream in more than 20 recipes, both as an edible garnish and an actual ingredient. Examples of the latter approach include the Reverie, which features vanilla ice cream shaken with brandy, maraschino liqueur and Curaçao, and The Glorious Fourth, where a large tablespoonful of the same commingles with brandy and Jamaican rum.

By the 1920s and 1930s the combinations were typically more straightforward. Here’s How!, a drinks manual first published in 1927, offers recipes built around gin and vanilla ice cream, like the White Cargo, which also curiously calls on white wine, and the Silver Stallion Fizz, both of which also make it into Harry Craddock’s contemporaneous Savoy Cocktail Book. Their inclusion in the latter, a seminal cocktail text, suggests the relevance of ice cream cocktails amid a formative stretch of drinking history.

This same period saw Wisconsinites establish their lasting dominance in the stateside ice cream cocktail arena. In 1884, a Racine-based inventor named James Tufts patented a device called the Lightning Shaker, a crank-operated mixer designed to produce milkshakes. Associated promotional material released by his company offers a simple recipe by which to test out his hardware: milk, ice and flavored syrup, with port as an optional addition.

In 1922, a Polish-American engineer named Stephen Poplawski, also based in Racine, received a patent for a comparable milkshake-making prototype, this one electric-powered. A few years later, a third Racine businessman, Frederick Osius, would acquire Poplawski’s IP, eventually introducing a prototype known as the Cyclone Drink Mixer. Two of his employees, Louis Hamilton and Chester Beach, lent their last names to his manufacturing business: Hamilton Beach, the first company to popularize what we now know as the blender.

“[It] was three things coming together at once,” says Wisconsin native Robert Simonson, the New York Times drinks columnist and PUNCH contributing editor. “One, you have a state that loves to drink. Wisconsin has a great thirst. Two, it’s America’s dairy land. If they can find a way to shove milk, cheese or ice cream into something else, they will do it. Third, the blender was invented there. It’s only natural that ice cream drinks are going to come out of that.”

Supper clubs, a nostalgic style of family-friendly restaurant native to Wisconsin, are particularly integral to the preservation and proliferation of ice cream cocktails, residents are quick to disclose. “Supper club culture is about lingering, socializing and generally enjoying life,” says Lori Fredrich, a food and drink writer for OnMilwaukee.com. “The idea of an after-dinner ice cream cocktail is pretty much a no-brainer.”

Though ice cream cocktails are prepared and enjoyed throughout the state, Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most populous city, boasts a number of landmark destinations. The bar At Random, which has been around since 1964, began serving them in big numbers sometime in the ‘80s, according to co-owner Shirley Zeller. “I don’t know where they started,” she says. “But they don’t make them like we do.” Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, which opened in 1938, serves somewhere around 50 massive 16-ounce varieties, its barroom soundtracked by the constant whirring of half a dozen blenders.

Bryant’s specializes in classic cream-based drinks with ice cream swapped in, like the Grasshopper, Brandy Alexander or Golden Cadillac. They also offer contemporary drinks, with names like the Persian Ice, the Cherry Benjamin, and the peanut butter-and-chocolate E.T. But the bar is perhaps best-known as the purported birthplace of the Pink Squirrel, a combination of crème de cacao, crème de noyaux and vanilla ice cream. John Dye, Bryant’s current proprietor, doesn’t actually use the cacao in his, believing his locally made Cedar Crest ice cream already delivers the requisite flavor.

Beloved as they may be in the Upper Midwest, not everyone is crazy about the ice cream cocktail category. When PDT founder Jim Meehan was a student at the University of Wisconsin, he spent years mixing them up at Paul’s Club, an iconic bar in hard-drinking Madison. The place didn’t have a functioning blender, so every ice cream drink was hand-stirred with a wooden spoon, a wrist-wrenching process writer and beverage director Brian Bartels, a native Wisconsite and fellow Paul’s alum, describes as “an absolute motherfucker.”

These days, Meehan might add a little ice cream to a Piña Colada to improve its consistency, but that’s about it. “Ice cream drinks stress me out,” he says. “It’s a massive sugar, calorie and fat delivery vehicle that just compounds the deleterious effects of the alcohol.”

You’re not going to find much support for that take on ice cream cocktails within Wisconsin’s borders, though. “Sometimes people don’t finish them,” says Dye, the owner of Bryant’s. “And sometimes people have three.”

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