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Keeping It Chill 

The weird science behind frozen drink machines.

click to enlarge A frozen blood orange piña colada is available at Little Nickel.

Scott Elmquist

A frozen blood orange piña colada is available at Little Nickel. 

You might have noticed a not-so-subtle piece of equipment pop up behind the bar at some revered local establishments. Among the finely arranged bitters and barware at several of our favorite watering holes sit awkward plastic monstrosities: frozen drink machines.

That's right folks, the Slurpee kind that spins up some of the most epic hangover concoctions at beach joints like Wet Willie's. As of late, however, local mixologists are dropping judgment and embracing it as a new tool to deliver fresh takes on classic cocktails alongside new favorites and, why not, a good old frozen daiquiri here and there.

Places such as Laura Lee's, Little Nickel, Saison and Flora are getting in on the frozen-drink game. Above all else, the creators behind the bar agree these machines keep things interesting. Flora had drink machines from day four.

"It's by design that we have one," says beverage director Adam Stull. "We're using it in a classic, dry kind of way versus sweet."

Right now, for example, Flora is serving a frozen cocktail called the Blood and Sand, a smoky, sour and dry concoction featuring mezcal and orange juice.

Saison recently added one as well, though the market next door has been serving up frosty booze for a while. The team has been making a baseline of classic frozen drinks: the Painkiller (rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, cream of coconut) and strawberry daiquiri, plus originals like When Kentucky Burns (whiskey, grapefruit and hot honey) and the End of Days (tequila, lime, Campari, and Demerara topped with an India pale ale).

Little Nickel recently leaned into a piña colada with fresh, blood-orange juice, and regularly serves up classic Tiki drinks with a spin.

It takes a bit of weird science to make these beverages happen.

"There's a lot of tweaking recipes," Stull says. "You can't just put a drink recipe in there and expect it to work. Often, it tastes fine going in and off when it comes out."  

This conundrum seems to be a trend across the board.

"At Saison, we strive to create balanced cocktails, and that extends to our frozen drinks," Justin Ayotte says. Experimentation is key. "It's a delicate balance of high sugar content and booze. Even though you don't want it to be super sweet, the cocktail needs that sugar content for the mouth feel of the drink."

Over at Laura Lee's, which just turned out a delightfully potent frozen Negroni, Ben Nelson uses a refractometer to get things just right.

"It's a pretty special piece of equipment that I wouldn't think is necessary, but the sugar content has to be in this narrow window," he says. "It's not like baking: You can't just scale up and expect it to taste the same."

The machines aren't without other significant challenges, like mechanics and skeptics. Nelson suggests his machine has a mind of its own. "It gets angry: It needs to be fed," he says. "Lots of blinking lights when it has less than a gallon in it."

Most of these contraptions can crank out between 60 and 80 cocktails, depending on the serving size. Thus another factor is that you'd better make sure you strike a balance between innovation and crowd pleasing, otherwise you're slurping down the same thing for more than a week.

And then there's the discerning drinker. While intriguing, a frozen beverage isn't always at the top of mind.

"These things are usually associated with crap," Nelson says, but a little explaining helps the cause of the frozen cocktail. "We're using the same approach we use with the other cocktails in our program, not commercial tubs of mix in neon green. Some people are still suspicious, but you can offer up a sample of this and convince them. You can't do that with most cocktails."

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