Dark and low-ceilinged, with a distinct dive bar vibe, the King Bee Lounge isn’t the place you’d expect to find one of the best frozen drinks in the city.
The Bee’s Knees, a frosty, flower-adorned mixture of gin, lemon and Good Flow honey, is disarmingly simple, with one final ingredient that makes it so irresistible, especially on a hot day: the icy slush that keeps the drink so nice and chilly. The King Bee Lounge opened with it on the cocktail menu in late summer 2014 and can’t take it off, for fear of disappointing the people who visit the bar on East Twelfth Street just for the Bee’s Knees.
“We recommend it as a person’s first-time cocktail with us; then, they’ll often bring their friends in just to have it,” King Bee bartender Randy Center says.
King Bee owner Billy Hankey brought in a frozen machine to make the Bee’s Knees — a quick-to-produce drink that tastes like perfection in a martini glass — as well as a rotating seasonal option, right now the Potstill Hurricane. And he’s not the only one who sees frozen cocktails as a boon for the bar during summertime.
All over Austin, bartenders are going beyond margaritas, piña coladas and other better-known frozen tropical drinks to help us keep cool and introduce a fun new way to enjoy some of our favorite alcoholic beverages. Many of these bars, like the King Bee Lounge, offer frozen options all year, so even when the temperatures start to drop, we’ll still be able to enjoy cold and boozy treats.
Keeping it chill
Most places tend to offer only one or two frozen drinks on the menu at a time. That’s the case with Odd Duck, the seasonally focused restaurant from Bryce Gilmore whose cocktails also tend to reflect the time of year. Right now, a frozen mix of rum, pisco, orange and lemon juices and Odd Duck’s house-made root beer sounds just about right.
Bart’s Root Beer, as it’s called, is the brainchild of bartender Dylan Phillips, who had the original idea of making a boozy root beer float. Although that didn’t work out, he’s happy with the result — a sweet drink that hearkens back to childhood, albeit with alcohol that’s barely noticeable. The root beer is made, like most things at Odd Duck, entirely from scratch and with a mix of “classic ingredients and, when those were hard to get or not local, substitutions from our garden,” he says.
“There are 18 ingredients in it before we even add booze,” he says.
He and other bartenders who work with a frozen machine will tell you that one element is key to getting the desired level of frostiness: the water ratio, an important additional ingredient that can mean the difference between an actual frozen drink and watered-down gloop. “It’s almost like a science project,” Phillips says.
If there’s one restaurant in town that has mastered this tricky art, it’s the Hightower, where bar manager Robin Ozaki has a total of five different frozen caipirinhas on the menu year-round. Each one, including the traditional, starts with a frozen base of cachaça, lime and sugar — the three ingredients that make up this most well-known of Brazilian cocktails.
From there, diners can choose one of four ingredients to add to the caipirinha: Solerno blood orange liqueur, strawberry puree, red wine sangria or Ancho Reyes ancho chile liqueur. They can also, of course, stick to the original.
“A lot of places have a frozen margarita, and these are both similar and different enough to where they’re approachable but still special,” Ozaki, whose favorite is the earthy Ancho, says. “When you taste it, there’s something else going on in there, the funkiness of the cachaça rather than agave.”
The Hightower, on East Seventh Street, opened with frozen caipirinhas and has no intention of taking them off the menu because they’re ordered so often. That’s actually presented an unusual problem for Ozaki: finding enough cachaça, which isn’t as common a spirit as vodka or whiskey, to satisfy the demand. “And we’re not even a Brazilian place,” he says with a chuckle.
In Central Austin, the hip Hotel San Jose has also found a winning ingredient, albeit one that taps into a current trend: rosé wine. A rosé of Rioja is featured in the sublime Frosé, along with fresh lemonade, simple syrup and lemon juice.
Sip it on the leafy patio at the South Congress Avenue hotel and you’ll know exactly why lounge supervisor Breezy Mayo created it: It’s a refreshing way to enjoy some rosé on a hot summer day. Hotel San Jose also offers the Frozen San Jose Margarita, with sake, lime and orange, as well as a frozen piña colada on Tiki Tuesdays, which livens up the lounge through August this year.
The urban winery Infinite Monkey Theorem isn’t missing out on frozen wine-based concoctions, either. There, you’ll find similarly pink wine slushies made with the winery’s Texas Cinsault Rosé, syrah, merlot and simple syrup.
The frozen frontier
As more bars and restaurants recognize the benefits of these frosty potions, they’re also getting smarter about them.
Even one local distillery, Treaty Oak Distilling, has become a reliable frozen fan after bringing in a frozen machine to bolster its cocktail programs on weekends, when it’s open to visitors. Treaty Oak, ever the masters of boozy science experiments, rotates the frozen cocktail specials on a weekly basis — so you have to keep coming back to try them.
A recent July weekend introduced frozen Oak ‘n’ Cokes, with silver and aged rum, El Guapo Chicory-Pecan Bitters, Maine Root cola and fresh lime juice. Another was the bright yellow Mango Tango, with rum, fresh mango juice, lime and a house-made lemon cordial. A frosty prickly pear daiquiri, according to Treaty Oak’s chef Clay Inscoe, started the distillery’s frozen craze.
“The cold weather in Texas is so short, I think we’re going to do it year-round,” he says, adding that the ultimate goal is to buy an additional frozen machine so that an ice-cold cocktail will always be on the menu.
He recommends keeping your frozen drink somewhere between 5 and 8 percent alcohol by volume (alcohol doesn’t freeze) “to get the best texture,” he says. “If there’s no alcohol, then it’ll work even better, but obviously the adults want a little kick.”
That’s advice other knowledgeable bartenders are well aware of, with tips and lessons of their own. Even though Deck Nine Observatory Bar, the rooftop spot atop the new Boiler Nine Bar & Grill project at Seaholm Power Plant, has only been open for about a week, the man heading the bar program at these La Corsha businesses knows what he’s doing in introducing frozen drinks there. Jason Stevens has been a longtime expert behind the bar.
And he’s keeping the frozen focus narrow: Deck Nine is offering “a rotating list of frozen shandies,” he says. “Basically mixing local beer with juices, liqueurs and soda and then freezing them.”
Up first is the Goblin City with Independence RedBud Berliner Weisse and St. George Raspberry Liqueur. Future cocktails include the Community Wit with watermelon juice, Real Ale Hans Pils with ginger limeade and Austin Eastciders Pineapple with falernum.
Working with the carbonated beer in these cocktails, he’s found, gives “a creamy mouthfeel to frozen drinks that is amazing.” He’s also noticed that the “cold does reduce sweet flavors but often makes bitterness strongly pronounced.”
Jen Keyser, head of the bar program at Hotel Van Zandt’s Geraldine’s, can pinpoint the crucial water ratio down to a specific number — it “needs to sit right around 30 percent of the batch,” she says. “Sugar is also really important because it gives it the right consistency, smooth and creamy. I’ve been lucky enough to work around frozen machines for a few years, so I’ve got my formulas down pretty tight.”
The pool deck next to Geraldine’s, with striking views of the city, always has a frozen cocktail available for sipping; currently, it’s the Going Gorillas with Maker’s Mark, Giffard Banana, coconut, pineapple and lime. Eventually, Keyser wants to launch a satellite drink station at Geraldine’s with four to six frozen options, but it’s not ready yet.
The end of summer won’t spoil all this fun. Come wintertime, look for many of these places to switch to more cream-based, dessert-like frozen options.
“The thing is to switch them from being juicy and lemony to being more cream-based,” King Bee’s Center says. “Our grasshoppers, with creme de cacao, creme de menthe and cream, are popular in the wintertime. And they’re low-ABV, so you can have a bunch.”