The Rich, Delicious and Distinctly American History of the Ice Cream Cocktail
A boozy Wisconsin tradition has gone nationwide. Here's how to make your own.
While you’ve seen infused ice creams and boozy desserts before, the concept of ice cream and alcohol together in a cocktail is a rare pairing in most parts of the country. Which is a shame. The meeting of those worlds is actually part of a long-running tradition — credit to Wisconsin — now with several modern adherents. And while it’s not always an easy mix (temperature is a big issue), the disparate ideas work deliciously in tandem.
“Ice cream is a great addition to a cocktail because it adds a texture you don’t normally experience when having a drink,” says Michael Toscano, the Brand Ambassador for Woodford Reserve. “Admittedly, it can get a little messy.”
Below, we trace the history of the ice cream cocktail, talk to a few modern practitioners and offer up several recipes and suggestions. And you want to skip ahead to the ice cream cocktail recipes, head here.
The beginning: Wisconsin
“There are several factors why ice cream cocktails are popular in Wisconsin,” explains food and spirits writer Jeanette Hurt. “One of the big ones is that it’s the dairy state, and ice cream — particularly in its more decadent form, frozen custard — is big here year-round.”
Hurt is the drinking culture columnist for Forbes and the author of the upcoming drinks tome Wisconsin Cocktails, which focuses on the state’s obsession with brandy, beer chasers and most importantly, ice cream-based drinks, which date back to before the Second World War.
Another factor: Blenders originated in The Badger State. “You know the major companies now as Waring and Oster — Waring blenders were heavily promoted for cocktail mixing in the 1930s,” explains Michael Morton, the bar manager at Milwaukee’s ice-cream cocktail mecca At Random. “We still use vintage 1960’s Osterizer 1/2-horsepower blenders at our lounges. The substitution of ice cream for cream or half-and-half in some common cocktails was probably inevitable.”
Hurt also credits supper clubs, which came of age after World War II and never really went out of style in Wisconsin. “Any supper club worth its relish tray will have a stellar menu of after-dinner ice cream drinks,” she says. The two most popular? Brandy Alexanders (cognac, crème de cacao, ice cream) and grasshoppers (creme de menthe, creme de cacao, ice cream).
If you’re in Wisconsin but not in a supper club mood, you can find excellent ice cream cocktails at the aforementioned At Random (which just launched a pandemic-safe outdoor patio called Ice Cream Social) as well Bryant’s (home of the legendary Pink Squirrel), two of the state’s oldest cocktail bars, both owned by John Dye.
The future of the ice cream cocktail
Just this month, two dessert-focused lessons were taught at the virtual Portland Cocktail Week (sponsored by Campari Academy). The lessons featured the talents of Story Stuart of Beans and Barlour, a Florida-based dessert bar that serves serves boozy milkshakes and ice cream cocktails, as well as Danielle Crouch, owner of the Las Vegas-based cocktail joint Jammyland (you can find those lessons here).
“The American cocktail revolution has matured, and I think many of us are considering new ways to employ the skills we’ve picked up along our journeys,” says Crouch, whose first attempt at combining the worlds of dairy and booze started a decade ago with a 22-proof Strawberry Angostura Ice Cream (it used bitters as the base spirit).
In the last few months, the combination of booze and ice cream has also started to feel comforting. As Crouch notes: “With the pandemic, we’ve had a lot of time to consider matters from our home kitchens. Right now, we have every reason to say, ‘Yeah, this sucks, but ice cream makes everything better.’ So taking home a half-pint of ice cream that also delivers some boozy pleasure might be just what you need for a little self-care.”
At Prohibition Creamery in Austin, Texas, meanwhile, founder Laura Aidan utilizes her background in science and technology to create her dairy/boozy concoctions, which include boozy milkshakes, floats, ice cream cocktails and liquor pour-overs on ice cream, with bourbon and mezcal the most frequent spirited base.
“I attended Penn State’s 125-year old ice cream program to discover everything I could about the nuances of ice cream, all with the goal of infusing it with alcohol,” says Aidan, who also points out that the two seemingly disparate worlds already had a lot in common, as several classic desserts such as bananas foster and tiramisu already work with liquor.
How to make your own ice cream boozy drink
Biggest note: Put booze in the blender first, as Hurt says. The classic combination for most ice cream drinks is 1 oz. booze (brandy, mint liqueur, etc.), 1 oz. crème de cacao (white for everything except brandy alexander, which is dark crème de cacao) and three scoops of ice cream. And forget the generic ice cream; look for something with real ingredients on the label.
Also, be careful not to burn out your blender motor if there’s a lot of mixing involved. “Use small scoops of ice cream at the start with a low speed,” says Morton. “It’s also helpful to stop the blender at some point and push the ice cream down to get out any air cavities.”
Be careful if you’re going super boozy with an infused ice cream. “If you’re trying for 30-proof ice cream … it can be done, but your stabilizer game must be very strong. Having an array of gums and gelatin handy will be necessary,” adds Crouch. “But if you’d like to add some flavor, character and aroma to an ice cream, it’s not too difficult. An ounce of Islay Scotch in a pint of Rum Raisin does its pungent work.”
And don’t forget the garnishes. “The whipped cream, chocolate shavings and cookie bits are almost as important as the booze and the ice cream,” adds Hurt. “They’re a great way to imprint a classic cocktail with your own personal signature.”
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