Break the ice this summer

By Tony Cross

If you’ve ever experienced a Carolina summer, you’ll know that the heat and humidity are enough to beat you down to the point you’ll ask a bartender for a Zima. Almost. Instead of having 10 drinks on a menu that each have a hundred steps before the bartender can put that lifesaving, cool drink in front of you, I learned to integrate punches and bottle cocktails that could be served as quickly as pouring a glass of wine. Another batched elixir that’s perfect for taking the sweat out of summer is a frozen cocktail.

I remember going to the bowling alley with my family in the early ’90s and seeing a daiquiri machine. Daiquiri-schmackeri. All I knew was that it looked like something for kids but that I wasn’t allowed to drink it. Once I was of age, I finally got to have a frozen cocktail of my own in New Orleans. I honestly can’t tell you if those slushy hurricanes were nice and balanced. I was in my early 20s. It was the Big Easy. I wasn’t very balanced myself. Trends come and go, but luckily for cocktails, we’re blessed with creative men and women behind the bar who can make what was once unpalatable, desirable. So, I headed out to a few bars and restaurants in the Triangle to learn their tricks for getting frozen cocktails just right.

The restaurant scene in downtown Durham has exploded in the past decade. A town that once took a backseat in the culinary department to neighboring Raleigh isn’t in the shadows anymore. Dashi, a Japanese ramen shop and izakaya (the word for a Japanese pub that’s located above the restaurant), has only had its doors open for a few years, but the combination of yummy and speed keep their guests coming back for more.

All of the cocktails at Dashi are made in the izakaya. “So, when the staff downstairs are really busy, they push these,” says bar manager Gabe Turner, pointing to his slushy machine. “They’re delicious, too, so it’s not like we’re sacrificing quality for efficiency.”

Purchasing a slushy machine was a no-brainer for Turner. “When we started fooling around with recipes, we stumbled into a pretty good template,” says Turner. “We don’t like to use too much sugar. Using an oleo-saccharum (oil-sugar) helps us keep a nice balance in our drinks.”

And you won’t find Gabe and Co. doing frozen margaritas. “The style we’re doing is a Japanese cocktail called chuhai, which traditionally is sh¯oōch¯uū (a fermented Japanese liquor made from sweet potato, barley, rice and other ingredients with a relatively low alcohol proof) and fresh juice. In Japan, they call them sours. The idea was, ‘Let’s do frozen chuhais.’ We used sh¯oōch¯uū, fresh juice, and then sake to round it out. To get the alcohol level up, we’ll add a little bit of vodka, but not enough to change the flavor profiles.”

One of Dashi’s current chuhai slushies combines the classic ingredients along with a spicy ginger syrup, orange oils and juice. How popular are the frozen chuhais? “I’ll make a whole batch of our slushy cocktails every week,” says Turner. Each batch serves around 50 8-ounce drinks. “We use the Bunn slushy machines and have a second machine in the back, so they don’t get too burned out. They’re being used 24/7.” If it’s not slushy season — a rarity at Dashi — two weeks is the longest they’ll keep a batch before letting the staff dip into the leftovers. “Rarely does it not sell out,” Turner says. Too bad for the staff. Dashi carries two different slushy cocktails at a time — a quick and cool option for a bar otherwise known for its myriad sake and sh¯oōch¯uū bottles.

What if your establishment (or you) doesn’t want to invest, or can’t find room, for a slushy machine? Get creative. A block away from Dashi, the chic cocktail lounge Alley Twenty-Six has its own twist on frozen drinks. Longtime bartender Rob Mariani, formerly of Alley Twenty-Six, says, “While a slushy machine is on the wish list, we don’t have one. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t make frozen drinks. By using crushed ice and giving it a good shake, you can get a drink that mimics a slushy and has a similar dilution rate. One would think that smaller ice melts faster than larger ice, which would be true if we were looking at two cubes melting on their own, but when you pack a glass full of crushed ice, there is lots of surface area, and the dilution rate is quite slow.”

Mariani has mastered the technique and suggests adding a bit more sugar to your specs. “The ideal ABV (for a frozen cocktail) is about 10 percent and the max is around 18 percent. Anything above that will not result in a frozen texture. Bitterness and sweetness are suppressed by cold temperatures, so more sugar is needed to achieve a balanced, frozen drink,” he says. “Up your sweet by 50 percent. For example, instead of using 1/2 ounce of simple, use 3/4 of an ounce.” There are many ways to master a frozen cocktail — having a machine constantly rotating the perfect, temperature-controlled slushy is one — but there are multiple ways to skin an ice cube, at home or away. Mariani shares one of the frozen cocktail recipes he uses for his weekly Cap’n Rob’s Waikiki Wednesday.

Frozen Rum and Tonic

1 1/2 ounces aged rum

3/4 ounce tonic syrup (Mariani uses his own Alley Twenty-Six Tonic.)

3/4 ounce pineapple juice

1/2 ounce fresh lime juice

4 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients (sans the bitters) with crushed ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake like hell or until you can’t feel your hands. Pour into a Pilsner glass. Top with crushed ice and four dashes of Angostura bitters. Garnish with a large sprig of mint and dehydrated lime wheel.  PS

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

His favorite book is No Death, No Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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