Brain freeze! A love letter to frozen cocktails

I am passionate about frozen cocktails in all their forms. From the Slurpee to the piña colada, the world is full of delicious cups of brain freeze—but what sets frozen drinks apart is their unique ability to transport you to a summer day with just one sip. I’ll dive deeper into the world of frozen drinks and help you understand why, of all the styles of cocktails in the world, I love frozen drinks the most. 

The birth of the slushy, brain-freezy frozen drink we adore today happened due to a stroke of luck in the 1950s. Omar Knedlik, the owner of a Dairy Queen, was dealing with a soda fountain malfunction and had to think on his feet. He placed bottles of soda in the freezer, but made sure they didn’t fully freeze. When he opened a bottle and inserted a straw, the result was a drink that was neither liquid nor frozen—it was slushy. This modern-beverage marvel relies on the scientific process known as the Joule-Thomson effect. The carbon dioxide in the soda expanded upon opening, and the bubbles absorbed heat, supercooling the liquid around them and creating little ice crystals—or slush. 

Knedlik did not need to know the science to know it was a hit, and he soon designed the first carbonated frozen beverage machine—calling his creation the ICEE. A certain convenience-store chain quickly noticed the lines of kids outside Dairy Queens, and in 1965, 7-Eleven bought a few machines. An ad agency noticed the distinct sound made when the drink was properly sipped with a straw and changed the name to the now-famous Slurpee.  

The Slurpee is the gold standard by which all frozen drinks are judged—and not just because I used to dig between couch cushions every summer for change to buy one. According to CNN Business, 7-Eleven sells more than 70 million Slurpees annually. 

Part of my day job as a beverage innovation manager at Monin Gourmet Flavors involves examining drink trends. I’ve been at it for three years, and I am still waiting to see one report that does not mention nostalgia as a driving force in consumer demand. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, marketers have discovered that Gen Z and millennial consumers are responding to products and trends that were big before they were born, while Gen X shoppers are seeking out reissues of brands that were popular when they were kids. When we order drinks, we want to be taken somewhere by the experience, and with a frozen drink, it is almost always that feeling right before you cannonball into a pool. That childlike feeling makes frozen drinks perfect for creating equally fancy and fun cocktails. They are not just drinks, but a canvas for bartenders to create magic, inspire and delight. 

But a frozen drink should not simply offer nostalgia; it is also ideally a good drink—and many bars in Northern Nevada feature thoughtful and well-executed frozen cocktails that surprise and delight.  

“For us at the Hideout, we really just started dabbling in the frozen game this year,” said Rob Villa, bartender at The Hideout Lounge. “I think people react to them because they offer a nice escape from the norm and bring back positive memories of that trip to a tropical getaway.”  

The Hideout’s recent innovations include frozen drinks like a strawberry Long Drink slush, rimmed with chamoy (a popular sweet/sour/spicy Mexican condiment) and Tajín—and the result is a refreshing, lightly spiced patio pounder. 

For many years, during the cocktail dark ages of the ’70s and ’80s, frozen drinks were mere vessels for sickly sweet cocktails that were given little to no thought. The frozen drink was just a place to throw your cheapest alcohol and brightly colored mixer. 

“We all wanted a splash of rum in our Slurpee when we were 21; what we do in bars is beyond that in quality,” said Reno Public House owner Kyle Aiton. At Reno Public House, frozen drinks have grown so popular that they are served from St. Patrick’s Day until the first snowfall of the winter.  

“I love putting together recipes with fresh fruit in its peak season,” Kyle said.  

His team has experimented with everything from watermelon to cucumbers to get that perfect summer sip. They change their drinks sometimes multiple times a week, with their go-to cocktail being a slush featuring strawberry, basil, lemon and gin. Fresh ingredients and clever ideas are what keep people coming back for more. 

My rule when making drinks is: If you can’t be fancy, you’d better be fun, but if you can do both, then that is a perfect drink. I love frozen drinks, because they take high science and make it fun. They are vessels for complex flavors, done in a disarming way.  

The next time you are in a cocktail bar, take a chance on a frozen drink. More than likely, it will be worth the brain freeze.