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Bartenders Share Tips and Tricks for Making Perfect Slushies

It wouldn’t be summer without a frozen cocktail on the patio, but making great slushies requires more than simply dumping a cocktail in the blender with ice. Not only can a frozen drink be a way to exercise creativity, a slushie machine allows you to batch cocktails, cutting down on the hands-on time required to make a drink, while a blender allows for experimentation and smaller batches. Bartenders Charlie Schott from Parson’s Chicken & Fish in Chicago, James Denio from Bourrée in New Orleans and Adam Bernbach from 2 Birds 1 Stone in Washington, D.C. talked us through the different ways to make slushies, how to make sure a cocktail will freeze properly and why sugar is so important.

Why Make Frozen Drinks?

Parson’s Chicken & Fish has a sprawling patio that gets packed in the summer, and the bar recently set a record for the number of negroni slushies served in one day—1,070 on the Sunday before Memorial Day. The previous record, 946 earlier this summer, amounted to 20% of the bar’s business that day. With that demand, using a slushie machine makes perfect sense for Schott. “For eight batches, it’s 10 minutes of work per batch, and we get 900 slushies,” he says. “Compare that to the work required by a blender.” Parson’s has six frozen drink machines, four small, one medium and one large, which churn out the negroni, along with a dark and stormy, a margarita and Purple Drink, red wine with port and orange-flower water.

According to Schott, besides volume, serving slushies ensures consistency with the cocktail and efficiency behind the bar, frees up manpower and appeals to drinkers when it’s sweltering outside. At Bourrée, there’s another reason the New Orleans spot serves them—frozen drinks, called daiquiris in the region regardless of ingredients, are part of the state’s culture.

“When we started Bourrée, we were really thinking of ourselves as a Cajun meat market,” Denio says. “Louisiana has a culture of daiquiris that I’d never seen anywhere before I moved down here. A lot of the daiquiris come from outside the city at little gas stations. They’re out-of-the-way mom and pop places that really don’t exist anywhere else in the country.”

Denio says that these spots serve homemade boudin and sausages, as well as daiquiris made with fresh fruit.

“When you come into the city, there’s a much larger daiquiri culture, and while there’s a lot of fruit in those, they’re more processed and you don’t get the freshness,” he says. “When creating the concept, we weren’t just thinking about the daiquiri, the larger idea was what we love about rural Louisiana. You go to a shop in New Orleans and find 25 different flavors. We’re going more along the lines of how each different place [in rural Louisiana] would have one or two that they specialize in.”

What to Make

Any cocktail can be transformed into a frozen drink, it’s just a matter of figuring out balance and knowing what will appeal to drinkers. The negroni slushie at Parson’s has been a cult favorite in the city since the bar opened in 2013, while one of Bourrée’s standbys is a take on a New Orleans classic.

“Our two staples are our gin and tonic daiquiri and our Rubin “Hurricane” Carter daiquiri, which is based on the hurricane cocktail,” Denio says. “It’s famous at Pat O’Brien’s, but it’s a pretty classic drink from the 1930s—it’s part of this city’s cocktail culture.”

But even though Bourrée serves the two specialty drinks, Denio says the focus is on fresh fruit daiquiris, like those found at gas stations.

“The ones that are on our blenders are very often just fruit, like in peach season we’ll do peach, in strawberry season, we'll do strawberry,” he says. “We like to play around with interesting daiquiris in terms of the cocktail, but what we really fell in love with in the country wasn’t a cocktail version of a daiquiri, it was a strawberry daiquiri, and, the best one I ever had was a banana daiquiri in northern Louisiana. I was like, ‘how is no one else doing this?’”

At 2 Birds 1 Stone, Bernbach turns to frozen drinks for happy hour, with a just launched Frappé Hour, with a frozen drink available Tuesday-Saturday from 6-8pm. So far, offerings have included frozen margaritas, piña coladas and Aperol spritzes, with mudslides and strawberry daiquiris planned, as well.

Balance Your Cocktail

At Bourrée, Denio says that they use a blender first when developing a new drink.

“The general rule of thumb when batching cocktails—this goes for punch too, even if you’re not freezing it—is that you can just multiply the recipe but only up to five cocktails,” he says. “Once you get past five, you need to start toning some things down and building other things up. If you made 100 cocktails, but just used the recipe for a single drink, your cocktail would be super bitter and really sour. So we tone down the bitter and tone down the acid and bump up the sugar.”

When making a daiquiri, Denio says he generally starts with two ounces of alcohol, one ounce of simple syrup and two ounces of fruit puree, then adds sour or acid to balance it out.

“If we use something like liqueur, which has higher sugar, we tone down the actual simple syrup or sweetener,” he says. “Likewise, if the fruit is acidic, we tone down the extra acid.”

At Parson's, Schott says that he builds his cocktail as he normally would, then dilutes it with water.

“You can freeze things that are 22% alcohol,” he says, “It seems like a lot of water, but where a normal cocktail would be 20% water, this is 30-40%.”

At 2 Birds 1 Stone, Bernbach says that for the Aperol spritz, “the challenge was that we’re blending it, and a large part of the Aperol spritz is that it’s spritzy, with a kind of sharpness that comes from both the carbonation and the acid from the sparkling wine. So we had to figure out a way to make that up. We don’t need to replicate the carbonation, but we need to with the acid. So what we did was added a little more sharpness from blending orange zest into the Aperol and bumped the alcohol up a little bit with the dash or two of vodka, then added a little bit of simple syrup to give it a little more body.”

Texture Tips

Frozen cocktails are supposed to be icy, but you also want an appealing mouthfeel. For Bourrée’s gin and tonic, Denios says he needed to amp up the body in the cocktail.

“We use cucumbers; we peel and purée them, and pass them through a chinois,” he says. “In order to get a light tartness, we acidulate the cucumber purée with malic acid from our local brew shop. Malic acid has a green apple-like bite to it as opposed to a lemon bite of citric acid. That brings the body.”

Gin can also be used to improve the mouthfeel.

“For gin, the best case scenario is really thick London dry gin, and when I say thick, I mean viscous, something like Bombay Sapphire as opposed to regular Bombay, which is drier and leaner on the mouthfeel—you want it to feel voluptuous.”

At 2 Birds 1 Stone, Bernbach uses sugar to add more body.

“The thing I find most with a slushie is that the flavor can be muted a little bit, due to the iciness, and it needs a little more sugar than most drinks,” he says. “Be comfortable using sugar. A lot of us shy away from it, because there are negative connotations with using sugar… When we make a cocktail, we sort of see sugary drinks as not being exciting and tend toward the more acidic side. Just don’t be afraid of using sugar, since a little more sugar helps the body and helps communicate that flavor.”

He also uses crescent ice for his blender drinks.

“Whenever I would make crushed ice drinks, I would use Kold-Draft and put it through the crushed ice maker,” he says. “Using Kold-Draft made better crushed ice, but we initially used Kold-Draft in the blender, and it takes much longer to blend and was kind of uneven, with chunks of ice. Now we use the crescent ice we would use for our side well, which blends pretty easily.”

Machine or Blender?

Both tool have advantages—machines can churn far more of the cocktail than a blender can in less time and with less work, but don't chuck out the blender just yet. Denio says that when Bourrée opened, they used a blender exclusively for the first five months. Now, they’re making their two staples, the gin and tonic and hurricane, in machines, but still make the rotating specials in a blender, since they sell a smaller volume.

“We have the ability to make them in the moment, which helps when making them virgin,” he says, adding that the blender tends to have better texture.

“We weigh the ice to know how much we’re putting in, but when doing it with the machine, we weigh by volume,” he says. “We use actual water because the machine freezes it. In the blender, we do about five to six ounces of liquid to seven ounces of ice.”

Denio likens the process to stirring versus shaking when making a cocktail.

“When you stir a cocktail with ice, you’re not breaking up the ice, just getting dilution until its cold,” he says. “If you shake, you add ice crystals, which add texture. The machine has a higher chance of ice crystals, since it’s freezing on the sides first, but in the blender, everything is perfectly emulsified, with the same level of ice crystals through the drink. In the machine you may find that, but only if you’re going through enough volume."

Bernbach uses a slushie machine for a rotating selection of slushitos at Estadio, but notes that a blender allows him to tweak a cocktail on the spot.

“It was initially harder for me to come up with recipes for the slushie machine, or have an idea of how to approach it, to know I that needed more sugar or how much water I would need to balance it,” Bernbach says. “But most of that work happened five years ago. Now, the blenders are a little more malleable and you can make adjustments pretty quickly. You’re creating the slushie texture by adding ice, and you can adjust that per second. With a slushie machine, everything has to be done an hour or so beforehand, and those adjustments can’t be done quite as easily, because everything freezes together in the machine.”

Troubleshooting

“Daiquiri machines are super fickle,” Denio says. “We have three machines that we purchased from the local gods of the daiquiri world, New Orleans Original Daiquiri/Fat Tuesday. They helped us get used machines that they work on.”

To keep the machine running smoothly, Schott recommends cleaning it daily with cool water and sanitizer, then leaving it off overnight. At a talk on slushies at Chicago’s recent Cocktail Summit, he handed out a list of things that can cause trouble for machines, including the machine’s location in your bar (“don’t put it next to the deep fryer,”) and acid, a major enemy of the machine. “Acid eats away at rubber gaskets and O-rings,” Schott says. “You can’t prevent it from happening, since acid is an essential part of any cocktail. But the best way to avoid problems would be to stay on top of regular maintenance, changing the O-rings and gaskets and seals.” 

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