Reconsidering the Virtues of the Blended Cocktail

Often derided as sugar-laden and artificially-flavored, blended drinks have gotten a bad rap with the cocktail crowd over the years. Bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler argues for their place among the classics and offers a 101 on making the perfect blended drink.

blended cocktails

Try this little experiment: Walk into your local craft cocktail bar, ask for a blended Margarita and see what sort of look the bartender gives you. Let’s face it, the blender is the most widely detested tool in the bar world, and mostly by bartenders who have never worked a blender station.

But blended cocktails are no different than any other classic cocktail with a rich history: They’ve enjoyed a heyday, seen a resurgence, suffered a dark period and are poised on the brink of another comeback (if you’ve consumed an Aperol Spritz or Negroni slushy lately, you know what I’m talking about).

It all began, of course, with the blender. Though not an instant commercial success, the blender eventually became a household appliance thanks to the promotional efforts of renowned bandleader (and financial backer of the blender’s inventor, Frederick Jacob Osius) Fred Waring, in 1937. The Waring Blendor, with its iconic chrome beehive base and glass pitcher, found itself at the center of a cocktail revolution that originated in Florida and Cuba in the 1940s, where frappéed Daiquiris were popularized by the likes of Ernest Hemingway.

By the 1950s, the Piña Colada had emerged from Puerto Rico. Though the story of the drink’s origin is shrouded in controversy and debate, there is no denying the Piña Colada dominated at the tiki bar over the next two decades, eventually becoming mainstay at bars all over the country (and inspiring that particularly insipid Rupert Holmes ditty in 1979).

Then, in 1971, Dallas, Texas restaurant owner Mariano Martinez revolutionized the blended drink forever. In an attempt to produce a consistent blended Margarita, Martinez modified a soft-serve ice cream machine, creating the world’s first slushy dispenser. It wasn’t long before the avenues of Las Vegas and New Orleans were lined with Martinez’s revolutionary invention.

A proper blended drink should never be so thin and watery that it splashes around in a pool of its own standing liquid; nor should it be so thick that the cocktail can be separated from the ice when sucked through a straw. Thus, the most crucial component of the drink is the type of ice you use.

But soon enough the slushy machine became synonymous with down-market drinks. Why? One word: sugar.

In order to achieve the correct consistency, slushy machines were routinely dosed with an incredible amount of it (not to mention chemicals and low-quality grain alcohol). In no time, the slushy machine became a symbol of the modern cocktail renaissance’s revolt against all things artificially-flavored. But in today’s craft cocktail world even the slushy machine isn’t safe from reinvention.

So what then, by today’s standards, makes a great blended cocktail?

Two critical elements: dilution and texture. A proper blended drink should never be so thin and watery that it splashes around in a pool of its own standing liquid; nor should it be so thick that the cocktail can be separated from the ice when sucked through a straw.

Thus, the most crucial component of the drink is the type of ice you use. I recommend using only crushed or finely cracked ice, made in a food processor or with a Lewis bag and mallet. Now, I do realize the whole point of the blender is to take care of that problem, but starting with crushed ice will allow for finely-tuning the drink as the blender is running.

As a rule, I begin with equal parts—by volume—drink and crushed ice, and add the whole mess to the blender cup, ice and all. Then I start the blender at the lowest possible speed, and slowly turn up the power as the drink becomes smoother. Then, with the lid off, I slowly add more crushed ice until I see the drink beginning to fold in upon itself in a smooth crease. It takes some practice, but in almost no time, a good bartender will be able to feel that sweet spot.

Though it may not bother the home bartender, part of why blended drinks may have fallen out of favor with most professional bartenders is the simple factor of noise. In a quiet cocktail lounge, the whirring of a two-horsepower motor tearing into a beaker full of ice cubes can be a mood kill. Some Japanese bartenders have adapted an ingenious solution to the problem, though: the immersion blender. If investing in one, I recommend the Barmix Gastro 350, which creates—using crushed ice in a sturdy container—beautifully smooth drinks in under 30 seconds.

When choosing drinks to throw into the blender, some are inherently better suited than others. Sour formulas (sugar, citrus and spirit) generally work best as more sugar can be added without issue. The fact that blended drinks contain a higher proportion of water than, say, stirred or shaken cocktails, means that more sugar is required to translate the proper flavors, otherwise the subtleties of citrus and spirits are drowned out with dilution. Sugar, a conduit ingredient, carries the other flavors through.

Generally, spirit-driven cocktails don’t translate well into the blended format unless there’s an opportunity to temper bitter or sour elements with sugar. I’ve made Negronis with great success in a slushy machine, but not without the addition of a little grapefruit juice and sugar. If attempting an Old Fashioned, consider adding some brown sugar or maple syrup to the mix, likewise with a Manhattan. (Cherry juice wouldn’t be a bad idea either.)

As for me, I appreciate the old standards.

I suspect few people know that the Daiquiri No. 3, Constantino Ribalaigua Vert’s masterpiece now commonly referred to as the Hemingway Daiquiri, was served blended—or as a “frappé”—according to his original recipe. But do me a favor, and don’t prepare it the way Hemingway demanded it—with “double the rum and none of the sugar”—or you’ll risk missing the icy, sweet-and-sour virtues of the blended cocktail.

A native Californian, Jeffrey Morgenthaler bartends in Portland, Oregon where he manages the bar at Clyde Common and Pepe le Moko. He writes regularly for Playboy and his first book The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique was recently published. Morgenthaler makes a mean Amaretto Sour.