It was tempting to write a Dirty Shirley story that embraced minimalism:
To explain: The Shirley Temple is the world’s most famous “mocktail,” a mix of grenadine and ginger ale or Sprite most often served to children and named for the dimpled child movie star of the 1930s. Some origin stories claim it was made for the wee Temple after she made a fuss wanting the maraschino cherries in her parents’ cocktails, but the adult Temple disavowed the drink and even sued to prevent commercial versions with her name. Boozy versions have long existed, some traveling under the witty name of Shirley Temple Black (the actress’s married name).
In May of this year, the New York Times ran a story headlined “Is the Dirty Shirley the Drink of the Summer?” It noted that millennials returning to the city post-pandemic were driving a trend that went far beyond one bar in SoHo: TikTok videos of the drink had been viewed by millions.
I’d never heard of a Dirty Shirley, but I could see the visual appeal — scarlet grenadine trickled in for an ombré effect, a perky neon cherry. But the recipe — just a Shirley Temple “dirtied” with alcohol — answered the headline’s question: Not of my summer. The very idea had my tooth enamel filing a grievance.
Fearing the pandemic had so decimated New York’s hospitality scene that craft bartenders who would once have guided these kids to better drinks had all left town, I went about my day, after yelling at some TikTokers to get off my lawn.
Soon my inbox began filling with opportunistic pitches. Vodka companies explained why their vodka was the one for the drink of the summer. There was a pitch for a canned version, a version with tequila, a version with rum. A glut of content referencing the drink!
Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang told Jimmy Fallon: “I just heard the Dirty Shirley is the drink of the summer.” The Today Show team mixed some up. Many outlets referenced the Times’ headline but erased its question mark, turning the Shirley’s summer supremacy into a fact.
A whole bunch of folks were trying to make fetch happen.
It had clearly already happened on TikTok, where 40 percent of users are 18 to 24 and you can watch many videos of pretty young people preening and posing with pretty red drinks, declaring this “Shirl Girl Summer” or griping about how the drink has been a thing for years — thanks, lamestream media, for finally catching up.
Slowly (but Shirley), I became uneasy. After all, there was a time when I loved Fuzzy Navels. Then I turned 19. Was I aging out of the cocktail culture, my recoil the boozehound equivalent of when geezers gripe about today’s music without bothering to explore it?
So I made the drink, half hoping it’d be like that moment in “Ratatouille” when the cynical critic takes one bite of Chef Rat’s food and finds his carapace stripped away, humbled by the taste of a childhood comfort.
Look: I generally believe in live and let drink. You should do you, and given the individuality of every human palate, it’s pointless to tell people what they should like. Studies have repeatedly shown people’s taste perceptions change with age. We find bitterness less aversive as we get older because we don’t taste it as strongly. My love of bitter Negronis probably just shows I’m one day closer to death.
Still: The Dirty Shirley is trash.
It’s like the sweetest soda imaginable. The vodka disappears in the drink, probably part of the appeal for those who don’t yet enjoy the taste or burn of alcohol. Then there are those neon cherries, disturbingly meaty in texture.
I started reaching out to bars and eavesdropping on orders. Was there really a sudden craze for this drink? Who would order it more than once?
None of my favorite bars in D.C. reported real upticks. Several bartenders had never heard of it.
Morris American Bar general manager Doug Fisher knew of the drink. “It’s not really what we do, but we’ll make it if someone asks. We’re in the business of saying yes,” he said. “But it won’t look like those online pictures, because we use the good cherries.” (The tender, gooey little cherries favored by craft bars look more like black olives. They aren’t #adorbs. They just taste amazing.)
Some spots like the Dearborn in Chicago — which put a drink called Shirley’s Sister on its nonalcoholic menu early in the year and whose publicist had noted which way the TikTok was ticking — have tried to capitalize on the trend. Beverage director Sarah Clark said they’d sold nearly 300, boozy and non, the preceding week. Made with cherries, cranberries, lemon zest and rosemary, it sounds like a good drink. Because it’s not a Dirty Shirley.
Over the past month, I’ve come to picture what TikTok users are drinking and what cocktail lovers are drinking as a Venn diagram, with only a petal of shared space — probably consisting of drinks that are not only great for the ’gram but delicious and balanced.
I asked cocktail writer Robert Simonson about what drives this virtual and actual “virality” in the drinks world.
A number of modern drinks “were obviously made for Instagram, made to be beautiful and eye-catching, and then they get photographed a million times by people who drink them … which of course causes more people to order them and photograph them,” Simonson says, mentioning the Gunmetal Blue at Porchlight in New York and the Pina Verde, which started at Polite Provisions in San Diego but didn’t fully hit till it was launched at Boilermaker in New York.
That one, Simonson says, was more “slow motion viral,” happening over the course of a few years. But there are certainly drinks that “whenever you see one of them, everyone orders one.”
He mentioned one in particular that I’d seen firsthand: If the Dirty Shirley’s the drink of the summer, no one’s told the espresso martini. That drink has been around since the 1980s, but at least three times I’ve been at a bar asking about the purported Dirty Shirley craze, while watching espresso martinis flying out the door — IRL as they say.
Wesley Mannings, general manager at Denson Liquor Bar, has seen no uptick in Dirty Shirley orders. But “our new espresso machine paid for itself in a week,” he says. Clark in Chicago confirmed: “We were baffled by the amount of coffee we were going through; then we realized it was all for cocktails.”
Who can fully explain what makes a drink pop up again? And how to make a bad one go back into hiding? Do we just wait for TikTokers to age out of it?
I suppose I get the cheeky, ironic appeal of the Dirty Shirley. You have to appreciate the ouroboros of an adult drink riffing on a kid’s drink created to mimic an adult drink.
But a drink does not become kid-friendly sheerly by virtue of being nonalcoholic. Nor, obviously, is a drink great for adults sheerly by virtue of containing alcohol. Adulthood is not childhood with added booze; adulthood is childhood with added complexity.
Surely it warrants drinks to match?
I’ve tried to provide one here — a more balanced but still sweet and cherried take on the purported “drink of the summer.” Please, don’t call it Shirley.
Don’t Call Me Shirley
Despite the name, this is sort of a Dirty Shirley for pickier cocktail drinkers. Rather than hiding a stiff shot of booze under a pile of sugar, this uses a black cherry vodka (we recommend Black Infusions, made with real cherries), herbal Pimm’s liqueur and lemon juice for a drink that’s still refreshing and summery, but more balanced and complex.
Total time: 5 mins
Where to Buy: Black Infusions cherry vodka can be found in the DMV area at Bassin’s, Connecticut Avenue Wine and Liquor, and Total Wine in Maryland (call to check stock). Look for Luxardo or Amarena cherries (not the neon-red ones!), available at liquor stores and specialty stores for garnishes and for their syrup, if you don’t have grenadine.
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1/2 ounce grenadine (or the syrup from real maraschino cherries)
- 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 ounce Pimm’s liqueur
- 1 2/3 ounces black cherry vodka
- 3 to 4 ounces lemon or lemon-lime soda, to top
- Amarena or maraschino cherries, for serving
Fill a highball glass with ice. To a cocktail shaker, add the bitters and grenadine (or cherry syrup,) then fill two-thirds of the way with ice. Add the lemon juice, Pimm’s and cherry vodka, and shake quickly to chill and combine. Strain into the glass, then top with the lemon soda and garnish with the cherries.
Recipe from Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan. Tested by M. Carrie Allan.