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Cocktails

In Defense of the Miami Vice

March 02, 2021

Story: Kara Newman

photo: Randy Krause Schmidt

Cocktails

In Defense of the Miami Vice

March 02, 2021

Story: Kara Newman

photo: Randy Krause Schmidt

Part Piña Colada, part Strawberry Daiquiri, the beach bar mashup is greater than the sum of its parts.

“The Miami Vice is perhaps the most perfect frozen drink ever created,” says Joaquín Simó.

At heart, it’s two blender drinks combined: a frozen Piña Colada and a frozen Strawberry Daiquiri. They can be artfully intertwined in a slushy-style spiral, layered in horizontal candy-cane stripes, or just stacked vertically in a half-and-half formation. “They’re delicious on their own, but much better when combined,” says Simó, a Miami native and proprietor of New York’s Pouring Ribbons.

Though it’s unclear exactly where the drink originated, it likely sprang up simultaneously anywhere blender drinks thrived. To draw a timeline, the blender was created in 1922 and popularized by manufacturer Waring in the 1930s; the frozen drink machine was invented in 1971, when Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez, inspired by 7-Eleven Slurpee dispensers, debuted his frozen Margarita machine.

But the drink’s name and identity crystallized in the 1980s, when the pastel glory of Miami Vice ruled the small screen from 1984 to 1989. “It was an influential TV show from a style perspective,” Simó recalls. “Everyone wanted to dress like Crockett and Tubbs: the linen suits, the pastel T-shirts, the Ferrari Testarossa. Suddenly, Miami became this cool place, and someone named the drink after the show.”

While it’s difficult to pinpoint where it started, it’s easy to see why it caught on quickly at beachside bars: “Combining the two became another menu item, without doing anything extra,” explains Simó.

Since its popularization, there have been numerous attempts to elevate the formula.  Around 2017 for example, the Broken Shaker Miami experimented with a version (no longer available) that featured fresh strawberries and unsweetened coconut cream. On the whole, however, the Miami Vice has resisted attempts to go upscale. Some even insist that the drink is at its best in its artificially sweetened, Day-Glo glory, and revel in its kitsch appeal.

“I think we’re starting a rebellion against the pretension,” says Shaun Traxler, general manager of Vault in Fayetteville, Arkansas, who has even written a manifesto about his love for the Miami Vice: “Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT church up the Vice.”

The best Miami Vice, in Traxler’s opinion? Red Lobster. “It’s a texture thing,” he explains. “It doesn’t have that ice chunk graininess or come out like a slushy. It’s more like a smoothie. It drinks like freakin’ velvet.” (His own Miami Vice hack: Blend with frozen fruit instead of ice to avoid watering down the drink.)

In general, the Miami Vice is best enjoyed at bars equipped with multiple slushy machines, where it can be assembled in a matter of seconds. Even bartenders with nostalgia for enjoying the drink at resort bars acknowledge that it can be time-consuming, even annoying, to make from scratch.

“Any bartender who has to make these by hand knows it’s a nightmare,” says Blakeley Mooney, a Memphis-based bartender. She recalls making them nightly at a bar with only one blender, which necessitated making half of a blended Piña Colada, washing the blender, and then making half of a Strawberry Daiquiri.

Yet, the drink still draws plenty of affection. “It’s a guilty pleasure cocktail,” notes Naren Young, who migrated from New York to Miami in late 2020 to run Sweet Liberty. At Cane & Table in New Orleans, where proprietor Kirk Estopinal is currently offering a made-from-scratch Miami Vice as a pandemic-era special, the drink likewise represents a welcome familiarity. “In these weird times I’m inspired by things that are brainless enjoyment,” he says. “Right now we just want to comfort our guests with pleasures.”

For Simó, the deliciousness of the drink is a no-brainer. The two components have a natural affinity. Alone, a frozen Piña Colada can feel overly sweet, creamy and cloying. “Adding Strawberry Daiquiri to the blend, suddenly you create more balance, more interest,” he explains. “All the flavors make sense together: Rum is in both drinks—that’s the through line. Strawberry and pineapple play beautifully together, and lime and coconut play beautifully together.”

While fresh ingredients, purées and high-end spirits are indisputable upgrades to artificial flavors whirled in a machine, other components work just fine in their current format. But more importantly, overworking the breezy drink would kill its vibe.

“In a perfect world, it’s pulled from two machines,” says Simó. Done right, “It’s no more difficult than pulling a draft beer.” While some might be tempted to try variations over crushed or pebbled ice, a frozen drink machine provides the ideal texture. “Where a pebbled ice drink might get thin or watery, a blended drink has a much greater ability to sit well,” Simó notes. “That texture is immensely satisfying.”

Often, the only garnish is a straw. But a mint sprig, fresh strawberry or pineapple frond can add aesthetic appeal—as long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously. “It’s very forgiving,” says Simó. “You don’t need a powerful aromatic component. A plastic monkey dangling off the lip of the glass? No one’s going to be mad at that.”

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