New York City gave us the Manhattan. Florence gave us the Negroni. Santiago de Cuba gave us the daiquiri.
Milwaukee bears its own: the Pink Squirrel. This is the season for blissful bites of frozen desserts and the agony of brain freeze, for sitting on porches and soaking up the sun, for ordering a two-scoop cone and mastering that particular rotational thumb-wrist-tongue pivot by which the human animal prevents a tower of melting sweetness from rivuleting down its arm. It is the season to give ice cream cocktails a fair shake.
The bar that claims the Pink Squirrel — Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee, which has been around since 1936 — doesn’t technically have proof of the provenance, owner John Dye admits, but the drink has been in the bar’s selection of cocktails for many decades. Dye says customers and former employees who go back 50-some years with the bar attest to its roots there. A super-sweet combination of ice cream, creme de cacao and creme de noyaux (an almond-flavored liqueur), the Pink Squirrel gets its hue from the red color of creme de noyaux, caused by an insect-derived coloring called cochineal. It’s a liqueur that, even now, can take some tracking down; you can substitute a good amaretto, but if you do, your Squirrel’s cheeks will be missing that blush.
The Pink Squirrel family includes such ice cream drinks as the Golden Cadillac (Galliano and creme de cacao), the Grasshopper (creme de menthe and creme de cacao), the Hummer (rum and Kahlua) and the brandy Alexander (brandy and creme de cacao). They all had their heyday in the supper clubs of the dairy-delirious Midwest in the mid-20th century, places where people went to spend whole evenings eating, drinking, socializing and often taking in a show.
The dairy ingredient varies recipe to recipe, with some calling for ice cream and others for heavy cream, but either way, the contributions of the region’s cows were central.
Today these drinks can seem out of pace with the path of the bitter and boozy modern cocktail movement, which has long maintained a bit of a sneer toward overly sweet or cream-based drinks. And yet at Bryant’s, more people have been asking for Pink Squirrels over the past five years or so (it’s one of some 55 ice cream cocktails on the bar’s roster). It’s because of the cocktail revival, Dye thinks, “just part of the whole trend of looking back at old drinks and their history.”
Those of you who’ve watched “Jurassic Park” may recall the moment where Richard Attenborough’s dino-DNA huckster and Jeff Goldblum’s oddly silky mathematician square off over the ethics of bringing dinosaurs back from extinction. Attenborough’s character argues that no one would be miffed if he’d re-created condors, the scavenger bird nearly driven to extinction by lead poisoning and other human awfulness. But dinosaurs are not a comparable situation, Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm says. “This isn’t some species that was obliterated by deforestation or the building of a dam. Dinosaurs had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.”
I sometimes think of this scene as it relates to drinks. Here and there, bartenders — or underutilized booze brands whose sales would be boosted by the contemporary trending of a cocktail that calls for them — try to bring back an old drink, hoping it will catch on across the cocktail world. It’s not unreasonable, the scene is laden with successes: the Last Word, the Aviation, the Old-Fashioned (once considered the old-manniest of old-man drinks).
They’re the condors, if you will. But there are plenty of dinosaurs out there, too, and the occasional prehistoric squirrel.
Outside of their natural habitat, where I can see their taste-a-bygone-era appeal, many classic ice cream cocktail recipes for me fall into the dinosaur category. A couple of sips and I’m pretty much done; the very-sweet booze and the very-sweet ice cream together tire out my palate pretty quickly. Even at Bryant’s, which sources fine ice cream from a farm nearby and where the clientele “do love our dairy,” Dye says, most people order only one Pink Squirrel.
Ice cream drinks take on some appeal for me when sweetness and creaminess are balanced with other elements in ways that help give them a modern appeal.
Take what bartender Chantal Tseng has been doing at the ice cream socials at the Reading Room in Washington: drinks like Southern Nuts, which combines bourbon, amontillado sherry, salted caramel ice cream, cola and peanuts, riffing on the old Southern tradition of dropping peanuts into a bottle of Coke. Or her From North to South by Way of East, where the sweetness of vanilla ice cream and PX sherry get a bump of brightness from sparkling cider and ginger juice and a hit of dusky spices in the garnish.
Whatever direction you take an ice cream drink, you have to make choices about the texture you want. You can shake all the ingredients together and strain them, which will give you a richly creamy drink without any of the ice cream solids remaining. Or you can blend them, resulting in a thick, spoonable drink (like the Bourbon Peach Shake).
Tseng frequently takes an ice cream float-ish approach. Her first experience with a really great, sophisticated ice cream cocktail, she says, was the Soyer au Champagne, a drink that dates to the 1800s. Like some of those Midwestern variants, it combines ice cream and liqueur, but also calls for sparkling wine, which adds complexity without adding another aggressively sweet component. “It’s not just put a bunch of syrupy things on top of something that’s already sweet,” Tseng says.
The Champagne also adds texture, one she now incorporates frequently, building ice cream and alcoholic ingredients in a glass and then topping it all off with sparkling wine, soda water or other kinds of bubbly. The ice cream and other ingredients are never fully combined, making every sip or spoonful a little different from the last.
I took the shaken approach to the Black Squirrel, a tribute to those local rodents brought to Washington, D.C., back in the early 1900s. Incorporating the bittersweet, caramely Cynar, dark rum and a bit of salt, it doesn’t have the rosy glow of the drink that inspired it.
But for me, this after-dinner Squirrel hits the sweet spot, contentedly flicking its tail between the overpowering decadence of those nostalgic supper club drinks and the bitterness of a digestivo that’s often served as a last, bracing face-punch to the evening. It’s an ice cream drink with an edge, but drink slowly, to avoid the brain freeze.