The snack bar at our Little League field had several flavors, but it was the grape snow cone I craved. I would carry it carefully to the bleachers, watching the syrup sink through the dome of crushed ice. There was a family — husband, wife, two girls in softball and a boy in T-ball — that often sat eating snow cones as they watched the games. Sometimes the father would pour a slug from a flask into his cone, a mystery to me: I was 11 years old and could not imagine anything that would make a purple snow cone better than it was.
Nostalgia: from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algia, meaning “composed of slush, artificial grape syrup and sodium benzoate.”
We tend to consume frozen drinks at happy times — the slushees of childhood, the daiquiris of beach vacations, the honeymoon piña — so we’re inclined to remember them with pleasure. They benefit from proximity to Mexican sunlight, the cut-grass smell of childhood’s baseball field, the sound of waves, the absence of the office grind. When we seek them out in other circumstances — say, post-work happy hours in cheesy chain restaurants — they can’t help but suffer by comparison.
After many a disappointing slush pile, I’ve realized that what I loved about that snow cone was probably inseparable from being 11. Still, as Washington hits a Ryan Goslingesque level of hotness, I crave a frozen adult beverage that’s actually adult: boozy yet balanced, with quality spirits and flavors beyond the cloying.
Most restaurants’ frozen drinks aren’t doing the genre any favors. Stuck recently in a chain bar, I allowed the young waitress to steer me toward the mango-strawberry swirl margarita. “How’s your drink?” she asked, watching me poke my straw at the red goo atop the Velveeta-colored drink.
“It’s pretty sweet,” I said.
“I know, right?” she nodded eagerly.
It’s sugar slush bombs like this that explain Kingsley Amis’s comment in “Everyday Drinking”: “We have no excuse for self-satisfaction while we allow the atrocity of the Piña Colada to flourish unchecked in our midst.”
Why are so many frozen drinks so bad? Some have pointed a finger at Mariano Martinez, the Dallas restaurateur who invented the frozen margarita machine (his original is now ensconced at the Smithsonian). In 1971, busy bartenders at Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine “were burning out blenders as fast as I could buy them,” Martinez told me when I called him the last time I was in Dallas. One night a customer told him that his first margarita had been great, the second so-so and the third just awful.
Give Martinez props for even listening to a customer who’d admitted to three margaritas: He worried. After a sleepless night, he stopped at 7-Eleven to get coffee and noticed the Slurpee machines. Bingo.
7-Eleven wouldn’t sell him one. “Didn’t you ever take chemistry?” he remembers one rep asking patronizingly. “Don’t you know alcohol doesn’t freeze?”
Tequila doesn’t freeze — not at the temperature level of a standard freezer — but after acquiring a soft-serve ice cream machine and playing around with his recipe, Martinez discovered that a mix of lime, tequila, Cointreau and simple syrup would indeed slushify.
For every bartender who regards the frozen drink machine as a savior, though, there’s a purist who thinks it dumbed down a drink that did not, originally, contain sugar. A thread runs from the invention that boosted Martinez’s business — Mariano’s expanded to six restaurants around Dallas — to the machines roiling their cloying syrupy colors in the bars lining Duval and Bourbon streets and disgorging the concoctionsinto day-glo plastic batons shaped like naked ladies.
Martinez is testy about the bars that use syrups to cover bad or little alcohol: “greedy, money-grubbing people using bad tequila or too much sour mix.” And he points out that he didn’t use his invention to scrimp. His frozen margarita uses five bottles of 100-percent agave tequila in every five gallons of drink. Yes, it’s sweet — I tried one in Dallas recently — but it’s not only sweet. That’s a critical difference between it and the diabetes-in-a-glass you get for many a frozen drink.
Gina Chersevani, the mixologist at Hank’s on the Hill and Buffalo & Bergen — who will be inducted into the Dame Hall of Fame at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans this week — says it’s garbage in, garbage out: Commercial sour mix plus chemical-flavor syrups plus cheap booze equals lousy cocktail. “Most of the ingredients have been sitting in a warehouse for years, and they’re supposed to be good?”
Chersevani and her team have been using machines to whip up delicious frozen drinks out of Suburbia DC, a retrofitted Airstream trailer at Union Market in Northeast (but not this week; Chersevani drove it to the cocktail conference). They’re sweet and tart, and you can taste the booze in them: El Dorado dark and Chairman’s light rums in the piña colada; Milagro tequila, Cointreau and Ilegal mescal in the margarita. Even Amis might have sucked one down, though he probably would have hidden in the bathroom to do it.
For the home mixer sweating out the D.C. summer, Chersevani says, the secret to a good frozen drink — beyond fresh, high-quality ingredients — is not to overshoot the amount of ice or alcohol. A good blending ratio is about three ounces of mix (including juices, liquors, syrups, etc.) to eight ounces of ice. “There’s a reason there’s measuring in cocktails,” she says. “Even the mixers give you instructions about proportions; they’re there for a reason.”
Frozen drinks like these may mean that the kids who try Chersevani’s concoctions — yes, some are child-friendly — won’t have to doubt their future nostalgia. She remembers a little boy who was confounded by one of her snow cones. He didn’t know what to make of it, she says. “This tastes like blueberries,” he said, puzzled. “It doesn’t taste like blue.”
Allan is The Post’s new Spirits columnist; her column appears monthly. She is a Takoma Park writer and editor. On Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.