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Cocktails: The slushie goes from crass to classy

Slushies are tricky, since a many people assume a they’re not reputable cocktails.

Ben Nelms/The Globe & Mail

After years hovering near the top of What-Not-to-Drink lists, the slushie cocktail is finally having a moment. Seriously.

Not an easy feat, given its past. Invented semi-accidentally in the late 1950s in rural Kansas by a Dairy Queen franchisee who was frustrated with a soda fountain that was constantly on the fritz (he started putting sodas in the freezer), the Day-Glo-coloured, big-gulp brain freeze was the province of convenience stores until it got called to the bar in the late 1980s. But, despite the addition of alcohol, slushie cocktails hardly became grown-up drinks – they were the overly sweet hallmark of chain restaurants, despite being named after classic cocktails such as the Gin Rickey and the Bellini.

Now, with acclaimed restaurants such as Vancouver's Wildebeest and trendy bars such as Toronto's Rhum Corner and the downtown outpost of the Miller Tavern installing Frosty Factory machines, it looks as if the artisanal slushie is an idea whose time has come. The new slushie, a compact and icy version of your favourite flavour-rich, booze-forward classic cocktail, bears little resemblances to its predecessors. Cool and short, it goes down fast and helps you beat the heat but retains all of the bitter, tart or savoury features of the original.

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"There's always a playful side to what we're trying to do here, so the slushie fits right in," says Josh Pape, co-owner and bar manager of Wildebeest, Gastown's acclaimed nose-to-tail hot spot. "But it can be a bit tricky, since a lot of people assume a slushie is not a reputable cocktail."

He was determined to "do it better," though, and, by applying craft-cocktail rules to the slushie machine, he slurpified classics such as the Negroni and Moscow mule, made with all fresh ingredients and house-made mixes.

While Pape says he was inspired by the challenge involved in changing people's perceptions, other bartenders are drawn for more practical reasons – pouring a slushie takes next to no time and, once a batch goes into the hopper, it produces an entirely consistent cocktail.

The pina colada at Toronto's Rhum Corner is an excellent example, since the precise formula took owner Jen Agg and head barman David Greig about a week of trial and error before they found the right "sweetness and slush" levels. Well worth the effort, since it resulted in what is easily one of the best coladas in the city – smooth, fresh and creamy, and served up in seconds at the push of a button. Similarly, the Miller Tavern is using its slushie machine to save time on labour-intensive cocktails such as the Mai Tai and Missionary's Downfall – the latter a light and refreshing mint-pineapple tiki classic.

The first bars to really dust off of the slushie machine included Momofuku and Mother's Ruin in New York that embraced the low-brow aesthetic in reaction to the staid and hushed atmosphere of craft-cocktail dens. The two were obviously dialled into the zeitgeist: People lined up to try Pimm's Cup and Bloody Mary slushies in a decidedly unpretentious (and mixologist-free) atmosphere.

This is, largely, the aspect of the slushie cocktail that appeals to Taylor Corrigan, bar manager at Toronto's Home of the Brave, an Americana-themed restaurant with over-the-top meat plates and plenty of bourbon, who drew inspiration from what is, arguably, the most debased and maligned drink in the history of cocktails – the Hurricane, a New Orleans drink frequently made with rum, rum, passion-fruit syrup, lemon, more rum and more syrup.

"I joked that we needed a line of slushie machines like the way they do at daiquiri bars on Bourbon Street," says Corrigan, "But we settled for a double-chambered machine with slushie versions of two classics going at any given time."

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His favourite is his frozen Last Word, a tart, prohibition-era cocktail with nutty and herbaceous qualities. A slurpie Last Word might sound like sacrilege to cocktail purists – probably part of the reason that Corrigan chose to throw it into the hopper.

"The gimmick is what first draws people in," he says. "But then they try it and realize it's a great drink. We sometimes sell as many as 100 a night."

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