In the spring of 2020, TJ Lynch, owner of the Manhattan bar Mother’s Ruin, started getting a lot of phone calls and emails from bar owners and managers. Some were people Lynch knew, but just as many were friends of friends or even complete strangers. All wanted to talk about the same subject: frozen cocktails and how to make them.
“Can you help us out?” Lynch recalls, parroting a typical conversation. “There were general philosophy questions. [Others] were trying to do these crazy combinations and worrying about brix and meters and adding all kinds of random ingredients. Half of the people inquired about what kind of machine to get.”
The frozen cocktail wannabes had called the right man. Mother’s Ruin was a pioneer in the craft frozen cocktail field. Shortly after opening in 2011, Lynch bought a Frosty Factory slushy machine. The bar has been selling frozen drinks hand over fist ever since.
Mother’s Ruin, however, is no longer alone in the deep freeze. Last summer, the cocktail world coalesced around the frozen cocktail, and the trend shows no sign of slowing. Every bar, from the humblest corner pub to the most celebrated craft cocktail bars, it seems, has a slushy, icy concoction on the menu.
Though well-wrought frozen drinks have been on a steady climb for a decade, the current surge is almost entirely the result of challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. With their traditional business models knocked out from under them, bars did their best to piece together a new model from the various lifesavers thrown to them by the government, including to-go cocktails and al fresco drinking.
“With the whole takeout and outdoor-seating thing, drinks like that make a lot of sense,” says Lynch.
Bars that previously took pride in hewing to classical standards were suddenly in the slushy business. In New York’s Long Island City, Dutch Kills, a bar founded by Sasha Petraske, sells frozen Dark ’n’ Stormys from its takeout window. Violet Hour, arguably the premier haute cocktail bar in Chicago, has launched a regular frozen program. Cure, long a standard-bearer in the New Orleans cocktail scene, also added frozen drinks to its repertoire. At Mace in Greenwich Village, the Wasabi + Cilantro cocktail is their take on the Miami Vice. It is the first frozen drink the recently relocated bar has ever done. PDT, meanwhile, has fashioned itself into an outdoor tropical bar, and will soon feature a frozen Gin & Tonic.
One of the frosty debuts that garnered the most attention was the frozen Cosmopolitan (sometimes called the Frozmopolitan). Arriving last summer, the pink slushy was all the more remarkable in that it was created by bar owner Toby Cecchini, who invented the Cosmopolitan back in 1988 but has never put the cocktail on his menu.
“Bars that previously took pride in hewing to classical standards were suddenly in the slushy business.”
“I’ve always been reticent to bray about having invented the Cosmopolitan,” says Cecchini. But 2020, he pointed out, was the “summer of our discontent,” when only sidewalk seating was allowed at his Brooklyn bar. “I began contemplating what we should really be offering customers who are kind enough to pretend that hanging out on the street is a proper facsimile of being at The Long Island Bar. Given that we were forced to let down our hair in so many ways, I thought, let’s do some cheeky things with drinks that we might not have done before.”
Donna, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was another critical pre-COVID pioneer, using its slushy machine to turn out frosty items like a Bitter Mai Tai and the bar’s most famous drink, the Branca Menta–based Brancolada. Over the years, Donna stood by its frozen program, offering Margaritas and bartender Fanny Chu’s frozen version of Egg Nog.
Over in Portland, Oregon, Jeffrey Morgenthaler opened his subterranean bar Pépé Le Moko in 2014 with a frozen Grasshopper variation, inspired by the ice cream cocktails of Wisconsin. Manolito brought back originalist dignity to the frozen Daiquiri when it opened in New Orleans’ French Quarter in 2018. Sam Ross spoofed his own famed Penicillin cocktail by offering a frozen Penichillin when he opened Diamond Reef in Brooklyn in 2017. The public responded warmly, prompting Ross to expand the bar’s frozen offerings to include the Spicy Flamingo (watermelon Margarita), the Spicy Canary (mango Margarita), and a Piña Colada with a choice of floats (Fernet, Cafe Lolita, blackstrap rum or Plantation O.F.T.D.).
These isolated points of frozen light, however, have transformed into a constellation over the past year. If you have a favorite cocktail, chances are you can now find a frozen version of it. Of course, not every classic cocktail survives cryotherapy.
“We’ve proven that ourselves with some stupendous cockups,” says Cecchini. “We tried a drink that people loved on our menu a few years back called the Chapulín, which is essentially a Grasshopper with a dose of reposado tequila in it. A smooth, beguiling upgrade of the old party favorite, it came out as frozen Scope mouthwash.” Cecchini notes that freezing a drink radically changes one’s ability to perceive it. Many aromas are severely muted while other elements become wildly exaggerated.
Lynch, who created more than 300 different frozen drinks at Mother’s Ruin, likens the process to making a punch. “Get that lengthener in there, something like tea, and stretch it out. Throw it all in the machine and check it out. If you don’t like it, adjust it.”
The frozen revolution has been good for business. Mother’s Ruin sold more slushies last summer than ever before. And the frozen drink is now a permanent part of The Long Island Bar’s repertoire.
“Keeping one’s expectations lower and a sound sense of humor were both key strategies during the height of the pandemic,” says Cecchini. “So a nod-and-wink pivot from high-end cocktail bars to offering bespoke frozen cocktails was a no-brainer.”
Perhaps even more importantly, frozen drinks have offered customers something novel and amusing during a very trying, often monotonous, time. “It’s a fun and accessible way to introduce a drink to someone new,” says Ross. “It’s also a completely new way to drink something you might be bored of.”