Austin Bars Serve Up Frozen Cocktails for the Texas Heat
How local bartenders are putting the dog days of summer on ice with fresh and frothy concotions
By Laurel Miller
Photos by Holly Cowart
“There’s nothing I like better than the sound of a blender whirring,” says Stephanie Aguilar, general manager of East Seventh Street’s Caña Rum Bar, Seven Grand and Las Perlas. “It’s like you’re instantly transported to the islands.”
Aguilar is blending up two of Caña’s signature frozen cocktails, a Piña Colada (fresh pineapple juice, coconut cream, Bounty White Rum, Gosling’s Black Seal Rum and Worthy Park 109 Jamaican Rum) and a Brazilian Necktie (lime, cucumber, black pepper and Anaheim-and-Serrano-chile-infused Novo Fogo Bar Strength Cachaça, a Brazilian fermented sugar cane spirit).
“We don’t use a machine to make our frozen drinks,” she says. “It’s all about the old school Caribbean bar vibe, where they use a blender or shave ice by hand from a big block.”
Frozen drinks — alcoholic or not — are key to surviving summer in Texas. And while slushy margaritas in an array of flavors are obvious mainstays, there’s a whole world of high-quality blended cocktails to be found at places like Nickel City, Half Step, King Bee, The Cavalier, Little Brother, Pool Bar, La Condesa, Cosmic Coffee and Better Half. But not all frozen cocktails are created equal.
“I typically see three main mistakes made by bars: lack of balance, lack of depth and bad texture,” says Steven Robbins, director of operations for Pouring with Heart, the hospitality group that owns Caña and its sibling bars, as well as Half-Step and King Bee. “We see a lot of places trying all kinds of new frozen drinks and iterations on classics, and sometimes, they absolutely nail it, but other times…think Bourbon Street ‘daiquiris’ that taste like burning ice and sad daydreams. The reason is lack of balance and really bad ingredients. You can’t cut corners.”
Robbins notes that frozen drinks also require more sweetness than a classic cocktail. “Recipes don’t directly transfer to a frozen format so, for example, a margarita needs more sugar content to be balanced when frozen versus freshly shaken because the cold tamps down the sweetness,” he says. A general rule of thumb is to dial up the sugar content by 50% when converting recipes.
The type of sweetener also matters. Many bars use artificially flavored syrups and canned juices, which can be cloying or too acidic. For the home bar, Robbins recommends using high-quality fruit purées and syrups like Perfect Purées and Liber & Co. because fresh fruit has too many variables like ripeness, variety and season.
“You can also make a very nice purée at home,” explains Robbins “Try fresh mango pulp from Fiesta Mart, then add equal parts sugar by weight at home. For juice, always go fresh. The one exception is Trader Joe’s pineapple juice. It’s not quite as good as homemade, but it comes really close.”
Texturally, a frozen drink should have a “barely melted soft-serve” consistency, says Travis Tober, founder of Nickel City and Lockhart’s Old Pal. ABV (alcohol-by-volume) can make or break a frozen drink. Too low, and it will fail to freeze or be watery and separated. Too high, and it will overpower the other flavors.
“You need some dilution, in addition to sweetener, for that balance,” says Tober, who recommends striving for a total ABV of roughly 10% — 1 oz. 80-proof spirit plus 3 oz. of mixer. Home bartenders should also pre-chill high-proof spirits and other ingredients and glassware in the freezer before using.
Ice size and quality are essential to a successful frozen drink. Most bartenders prefer crushed ice because it breaks up easily, but if you blend too long, it will heat the drink and over-dilute it. Large-format cubes take longer to break down, resulting in the same issue. These large cubes can also wreak havoc on a non-commercial blender; Vitamix 5200 and classic Hamilton Beach machines are favorites amongst bar professionals. Tober always blends on the lowest speed of his Vitamix for five seconds, then hits high for 10 seconds before pouring the drink into a pre-chilled glass.
At Caña, the bartenders use Kold-Draft ice, made by a machine that yields clear, dense, 1.25-inch cubes.
“Retail party ice, which is smaller, incorporates more air, so you get a frothier drink,” says Aguilar. For home use, she suggests buying craft cube-size silicone ice molds and using filtered tap water.
Tober also makes flavored ice cubes from ingredients like Orange Pekoe Tea or juice. “Frozen drinks are about 20 to 25% water after they’re blended so I always want to add flavor back into the build,” he says. For Nickel City’s incomparable Frozen Irish Coffee, he adds chocolate ice cubes to Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey, housemade cold brew and coffee syrup, Borghetti Coffee Liqueur, vanilla ice cream and cream.
Flavored ice cubes aren’t the only way to amp up your frozen drink. Robbins suggests swapping the water component for agua fresca or fruit juice.
“At home I’m mixing gin, Aperol, lime, sugar and fresh watermelon juice,” he says. “I call it a Melon Baller.”
Aguilar likes to make her own coconut cream — find her recipe at the end of this post.
“The canned product has too much sugar,” she says. “When you make it yourself, you can control the sugar content. Try combining it with orange juice and dark rum for a frozen Creamsicle or blend it up with some fresh strawberries and white rum for a boozy brunch drink. It’s just banging.”
Aguilar says a blend of rum styles is critical to giving a frozen drink a well-rounded profile that showcases the spirit, rather than obscuring it. Brands vary depending upon the drink and desired result, but Caña uses a ratio of three parts white rum to two parts dark rum to one-part overproof rum to elevate classics like Mai Tais, Piña Coladas, Daiquiris, Hurricanes and Cable Cars.
Unexpected ingredients like herbs, vegetables, tea and spices also play a role in today’s frozen cocktails. New at Nickel City is a revamped version of the classic Chi Chi, a tiki cocktail. “Historically, it’s a vodka Piña Colada, but we tweaked it by adding Chareau (a California aloe liqueur) and green tea. It’s way tastier now,” says Tober.
La Condesa also uses aloe for their monthly rotating frozen series. The Cucumber Aloe, which appeared in June, is made with Mezcal Ensamble, Tromba Blanco Tequila, agave, cucumber and aloe vera juices and water. At Better Half, lavender and rosemary add an aromatic punch to Frozmary’s Baby, which also contains Citadelle Gin, Crème de Violette and lemon, while the Palo Duro, But Frozen, combines ginger, turmeric, Thai basil and Yukari salt with sotol, carrot and lime.
This month at La Condesa, the frozen is fruit-forward, made with Tromba Blanc, fresh papaya and pineapple juices, agave syrup, lime and water. Fruit also forms the backbone of Aba’s Go Freezy On Me, a luscious blend of grapefruit, simple syrup, Lo-Fi Amaro, Chinola passion fruit liqueur, dry rosé and water.
“We’ve been enamored with the idea of using wine as the base for all of our frozens,” says Thomas Mizuno-Moore, Aba’s senior beverage manager. “Wine is so complex; it serves as an anchor to the development of the drink. In this case, we wanted something bright and tropical to beat the heat.”
Rosé varietals (Texas-grown Dolcetto and Cinsault grapes) also play a role in Texas Keeper Cider’s new Grafter Frosés, currently on offer at their pastoral Manchaca tasting room. This year’s Grafter release is made from heirloom Rome Beauty apples, which are fermented with the grapes. The result is a cider with creamy, ripe, raspberry and stone fruit flavors and a crisp finish.
Regardless of components, a well-made frozen drink is greater than the sum of its parts. Refreshing and restorative, yes, but also innately uplifting. “You can’t be in a bad mood when you’re drinking one,” says Aguilar. “They just have this visceral effect.”
Caña’s Coconut Cream
Combine one can of good-quality coconut milk (she suggests Mae Ploy brand) with one can of Coco Lopez coconut cream. Add 3/4 of a cup of sugar and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Store up to one month in the refrigerator.