Jeffery Lindenmuth / July 2011
Technical ingenuity and bartending prowess collide in the blender. Jeffery Lindenmuth offers a historical perspective.
When Constantino Ribalaigua, revered bartender of Havana’s La Florida, currently known as Floridita, the Prohibition-era “Cradle of the Daiquiri Cocktail” and favorite tippling spot of Ernest Hemingway, recorded his cocktail recipes in the 1930s, the English translations rarely did justice to the fastidiousness of his craft. With regard to mixing, Ribalaigua might instruct agítese, batido, bien batido, or muy batido, depending on whether the drink should be shaken lightly, mixed well, or mixed very well. With a few drinks, including his Daiquiri No. 4, Ribalaigua specified batido eléctricamente—mix electrically. Yes, Hemingway slurped frozen Daiquiris.
However, Ribalaigua’s original electric mixer was not a blender. Between 1910 and 1930, the development of practical small electric motors resulted in a flood of inventions to improve the mixing of soda shop drinks, made using malted milk powders and eggs, which needed rapid mixing and emulsification. These devices resembled today’s milk shake mixers, with a prop affixed to a vertical shaft descending into a mixing cup. Of course, each device promised to be faster, easier, and more sanitary than the competition. A 1937 account by Jack Cuddy of the United Press details that this is precisely the type of machine that Ribalaigua used to mix his Daiquiris, using finely shaved ice so the electric mixer would have an easy job of whipping up a frothy Daiquiri, then served frappé or put through a fine strainer.
In 1922, Stephen J. Poplawski of Racine, Wisconsin, had struck upon the idea to do away with the vertical shaft and place the mixing prop in the bottom of the mixing cup, patenting his Beverage Mixer. This being Wisconsin, in the midst of Prohibition, Poplawski and his employer, Arnold Electric, were strictly eyeing the soda shop market. Poplawski tinkered with the idea for a decade, making it safer and more reliable, but before he could achieve any great success, an inventor by the name of Frederick J. Osius of Miami Beach was already improving on the design of the mixing vessel. In 1937, Osius applied for a patent featuring a very sexy (as far as patent applications go) illustration of his “Disintegrating Mixer for Producing Fluent Substances,” joining a well-designed blade with Poplawski’s inside-the-cup breakthrough. The device was said to pulverize potatoes in 30 seconds, and in a prescient nod to the Piña Colada, Osius wrote that even raw pineapple could be made liquid by his machine and that, when ice was added, it made a frappé mixture in an “extremely short time.”
Osius was foremost an inventor, having previously patented everything from electric massagers to vacuum cleaners, but wrote with Barnum-esque bravado that his mixer was “…especially adapted for soda-fountain, restaurant, or household use, wherein a fascinating and thorough mixing action is constantly visible to the operator and to bystanders, when the machine is in operation.” The Osius mixer was ultimately perfected and marketed by entertainer Fred Waring, who introduced the device as the Miracle Mixer at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago in 1937. Despite a staggering price of $29.75, by 1938, now renamed the Waring Blender, there were 35,000 in professional use in America. Bartenders, who had been eagerly searching for easier ways to crack ice and mix drinks since the 19th century, could now do it all with the push of a button.
In 1939, author Charles H. Baker lavished praise on Waring in The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book, or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker, and Flask, noting, “For cooling Daiquiris, gin fizzes, making grenadine juice from pomegranates, for a dozen and one unexpected uses, we find this deft gadget indispensable.” According to Baker, the “new style Daiquiri,” with its “sherbet-like consistency,” could not be made by hand at all. The blender drink was born.
Blenders like Waring’s were a temporary casualty of the World War II effort, but as production resumed, blenders were soon pulsing to the tiki beat of the 1950s. In The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, 1958, David Embury asserted that by the time of his death in 1952 Ribalaigua was mixing all his Daiquiris in a Waring Blender and then strained them through a fine sieve.
In the wrong hands, however, a blender could just as quickly combine powdered mixes and frozen juices into watered down slushies, or make homogenous high-calorie concoctions out of iced cream and sweet liqueurs. “The blender got the reputation of making poor quality drinks because in the 1970s and ’80s they were filled with mixes and bad ingredients. Blender drinks were not thought of as real mixology,” says Julie Reiner, owner of Flatiron Lounge and Lani Kai in Manhattan. “Now, bartenders like to cry about blenders the same way they cry about hot drinks. They’re considered a distraction.”
Despite similar negative experiences, Tad Carducci, partner in cocktail consulting company Tippling Bros., confesses he adores the sound of a blender at work. “When you flip on the blender, it transports you to a place with sand between your toes. I think that makes people smile. Now, it’s about putting great things into the blender.”
With The Tippler, a drinking destination opening this summer in New York City’s Chelsea Market, Carducci intends to reconcile his passion for fresh cocktails with his clandestine love of the blender. “Blenders will play a big role. Nothing is better for making fresh purees à la minute, from strawberries, mangos, or cucumbers,” states Carducci, who crafts a gorgeous green frozen drink made with absinthe and fresh basil. Also planned for the list of “lushies” are classic cocktails—Negronis and Manhattans—in blender drink incarnations. “I don’t see why the sound of a blender can’t become de rigueur.”
In the meantime, the cacophony of a blender remains an acquired taste for most. Vitamix addresses this concern with The Quiet One, a new commercial blender specifically designed to churn out milk shakes, smoothies, and frozen cocktails, albeit four times quieter than the closest competitor, making it ideal for lounges and cocktail bars.
Noisy or not, as Embury observed, sometimes only a blender will do—like with avocado cocktails. “Using the blender like a food processor is essential in working with something fatty like avocado,” asserts H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir in San Francisco. “The emulsification cannot occur properly without it. A good example is the way bars in Peru make Pisco Sours. They nearly always use blenders for the emulsification,” adds Ehrmann, who prefers his Vitamix BarBoss to combine Square One Cucumber, lemon juice, pineapple juice, agave nectar, avocado, cilantro, and fresh ginger in his frozen Guayabera cocktail.
Junior Merino, master mixologist and owner of The Liquid Chef, created an Avocado Mezcal cocktail that is a far more thoughtful tribute to Mexico than the frozen Margarita machine, with its bounty of Mexican ingredients. Scorpion Mezcal Blanco, Agwa Coca Leaf Liqueur, Combier Liqueur d’Orange, fresh lime juice, Dainzu agave nectar, honey, and avocado are blended with ice and served in a glass rimmed with Dainzu Cactus Pear Strawberry and lemongrass salt.
The Avocado Mezcal defies the blender drink stereotype of being both watery and sweet. The key, according to Merino, is to use just enough ice and developing a feel for the correct blending time. “Start with just one scoop, instead of two or three. When you use all that ice, you now have to start adding sugar to put the flavor back in, and that is where you end up with all these bad drinks,” he cautions, noting that the Avocado Mezcal should be a little slushy, very silky from the avocado, and not brain-freezingly cold.
Unlike with shaken and stirred drinks, where the ice serves to chill and dilute, in a blender drink the ice becomes an ingredient, one that requires careful attention and even measuring, according to Tony Abou-Ganim, author of The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails. While in Rio de Janeiro perfecting his take on batidas, the Brazilian blended drinks based on fruit, condensed milk, cachaça, and ice, Abou-Ganim took to measuring cracked ice in a measuring cup. “It requires a lot of expertise to properly use a blender. It can be very unforgiving; it is not as simple as loading it with ice and having at it,” says Abou-Ganim, who created his signature blender drink, the Funky Monkey, for the Bellagio resort and casino in Las Vegas.
Hamilton Beach attempts to take some of the guesswork out of blending time with the Hamilton Beach Commercial Summit Blender with Auto Blend. By measuring a combination of power usage and speed, this smart blender shuts off automatically when a predetermined texture profile is reached. With preprogrammed settings, every drink is the same, even when mixed with different blenders at different locations.
Determined to offer consistently excellent frozen drinks at Lani Kai, Reiner instead opted for a frozen drink machine by SaniServ, replacing the usual disco-era mixes with fresh ingredients in her Bermuda Triangle, made with calamansi juice, cream of coconut, fresh lime, lychee juice, and Leblon Cachaça. While the machine is able to maintain a large quantity of frozen drink at perfect consistency, an original recipe requires some serious science. “I worked with Aisha Sharpe [of New York City–based Contemporary Cocktails], who had some success with these machines and learned you have to have the sugar-to-water-to-booze ratio exactly right for the drink to work,” explains Reiner, who is designing a frozen Tequila drink for the summer.
With his willingness to embrace new technology, it’s hard to say exactly how Ribalaigua would choose to mix his famous Daiquiris if he were here today. One piece of advice would no doubt remain the same: Mix electrically.