If there were a food zodiac name for my birthyear, it would be the Year of the Slushie. Apparently 1971 was a good year for two kinds of slushies – the alcoholic and the non-carbonated versions. May is the birthday of the American alcoholic slushie. There’s a third slushie version, led by the 7-Eleven’s branded Slurpee that ‘freezes’ a carbonated beverage and requires a pressure chamber and a CO2 canister. All three of these slushie or frozen slush drinks, as the generic versions can be legally called, take a spoonable frozen dessert like the sno-cone, shaved ice, sorbet or granita, and turn them into a slurpable, brain-freezable drink.
To say that a slushie is a freezable drink is kind of a misnomer. If they were truly frozen, they’d be solid. Slushies are just beginning to crystalize to the frozen state, but also have a liquid component, so in scientific terms, they should be referred to as a slurry. The consistency and percent solids or crystals is the brilliance of each version of the slushie machine. The majority are driven by constant horizontal mixing and a huge amount of sugar, which acts as the -anti-freeze to keep the mix in a drinkable slurry.
Mexican American Mariano Martinez, inventor of the commercial frozen margarita machine.
The alcoholic slushie machine was invented on May 11, 1971 by Mariano Martinez, a Mexican American entrepreneur, restaurateur, and creative artist. In Dallas, he adapted a soft serve ice cream machine to margaritas and dubbed it “The World’s First Frozen Margarita Machine.” Happy hour and hangovers would never be the same. By inventing a machine to mass produce blender drinks – like the fruity daiquiri, the mudslide, pina colada, and others, Martinez elevated the frozen margarita from a border-cantina curiosity to America’s most popular cocktail. This Mex-Am’s brilliance popularized Tex-Mex cuisine and gave a huge revenue stream for them. Most frozen boozy slush machines pay for themselves in a month or less. Martinez paved the way for a nation long bar’s length of other boozy slushies like the super popular Froze (frozen Rose), the Smash, the Banshee, and the Alabama Bushwacker and its sibling, the Mobile Mardi Gras Krissy.
Now who doesn’t love a margarita. I certainly do, although I prefer the rocks version to the frozen. The same goes for slushies. I have always preferred soft serve ice cream over the slushie. I might go for the combined soft serve slush version – an ice cream slush, or a frozen coffee in the heat of summer. But the slushie is super sugary and more likely to produce brain freeze. As an adult I need to watch my blood sugar, and I also need to preserve the brain cells I still have left. The Governor Diner in Milford, led by former Best New Chef of Cincinnati, Paul Barroco, announced this week they are open for inside dining, with a boozy slushy made from their Big Red Soda infused syrup.
1971 was also the birth of another ice slush product – the screwball. It’s a flavored sorbet-like concoction served inside a conical plastic cup with a gumball at the bottom. Prominent brands Popsicle and Eskimo Pie serve them, as well as many ice cream trucks and stands in the northeast. The product does not serve as ice cream under USDA guidelines, so it falls into our slushie family tree.
My years in the food service business taught me that the world’s largest consumer of frozen slush drinks is Canada, and the province that slurps the most per capita is also the coldest, Manitoba. Canadians consume more frozen slush drinks than pop. I once had a British Columbian distributor tell me there was money to be made – in fryers and ice (slush) machines. A whopping 98% of convenience stores offer frozen slushie drinks and they can account for a single category sales of over 20% of items. There are 13 major manufacturers of slushie machines and the North American Market size is in the half a billion dollar range.
And gas station convenience stores are where the American slushie was born and still lives, into middle age. First came the ICEE, the popular slushie fronted by the cute pantless polar bear, who can now apparently surf and live in warmer climates. ICEE’s founder, Omar Knedlik, is credited as being the father of the frozen drink machine in the late 1950s. He invented it by accident at his Dairy Queen in Kansas, when he put soda in the freezer for too long, creating a slushy soft drink that customers loved. Other me-too companies popped up in the 1960s, seeing the opportunity in frozen slushies.
Omar Knedlick, Grandfather of the American Slushie.
The Koolee, a carbonated slushie came to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1963 through the regional convenience store chain QuickTrip, and was only available in Oklahoma, but had a huge following. The Koolee was replaced in 2004 by the Freezoni, a play on the word Zamboni – which was extended to all the over 400 out of state QuickTrip stores. Although it has the same corn syrup flavoring as the Koolee, it has smaller ice crystals than the Koolee, giving it a texture closer to ice cream. There is also less air pumped into the mix, making a denser, sweeter frozen drink with a richer flavor.
Somewhere in the mid 1960s came the allusive Mr. Sippy slushie, of whom there’s little corporate history to be found.
Then came the Slurpee, made by 7-Eleven. The convenience store chain licensed the ICEE machine technology in 1965, and debuted its branded version of the slushie one year later. Around 1968, came the Chilly Willy – not the cartoon penguin, but the blue-haired, freckled boy with the brain freeze shakes, who’s form rotated around the top of his company’s slush machines. The company is still around, but they can be seen at mostly community concessions and drive-in refreshment stands. In 1993, the shaky boy was replaced with a blue sea lion mascot. Although Chilly Willee reached its popularity in the 1970s with only two flavors – cherry and grape – they still exist, headquartered out of Florida, with nearly two dozen flavors of uncarbonated slushie products. The company’s most popular marketing ploys, but one of the most popular was its integration of circular shaped baseball cards with each purchase. You can buy them now on eBay for upwards of $100.
Finally in 1970, a man from Dayton, Kentucky, William Lawson Radcliff, who had been in the peanut distribution business, saw the opportunity in the slushie market, and formed perhaps the most popular slushie, over a round of Burger Beers, called the Slush Puppie (an alliterative take on the southern snack, the hush puppie).
So, the family story goes that one night after returning from the trade show, Radcliff was sitting on his West Side Cincinnati front porch with his mother, Thelma and his sister, Phyllis. Over a brainstorming session with a six pack of local Burger Beer, they came up with the name Slush Puppie. Radcliff would adopt the logo of a loveable floppy eared dog wearing a toboggan cap.
So the size of the American Slushie Market begs its origin story. The amount of Italian ice shacks that popup in the summer in parking lots kinda gives it away. The alpine Italians invented the slushie, like they did ice cream. And they did it in the form of frozen lemonade. At least that’s the story Del’s Frozen Lemonade in Newport, Rhode Island gives. In Rhode Island, frozen lemonade is the state official drink. Last summer when I was there I had a Del’s Watermelon Frozen Lemonade in 90 degree weather on the beach. According to the family their great grandfather DeLucia made the first Del’s frozen lemonade in 1840 in Naples, Italy. During the winer he carried snow into nearby caves and insulated it with straw. When summer came and the local lemons were ripe, he mixed their juice with a secret ration of sugar and snow, which he sold at the local market. His son Franco, immigrated to the U.S. with the recipe, and his grandson, Angelo developed the machine to make it commercially in 1948.
However, Asians too have a long tradition of topped shaved ice desserts, but they are chunkier and more of an iced soup because they require a spoon. Cantonese shaved ice desserts, called Baobing, have been served since the 7th century. Toppings include sugar water, condensed milk, adzuki and mung beans, seasonal fruit, and tapioca balls. A modern take now popular in China is the bubble tea slushie. The Chinese government even served shaved ice when Nixon made his famous trip there in 1972, right at the time the American Slushie was at its height of popularity. Japan has its version called Kakigori, Korea has its patbingsu, Philipines its Halo-Halo, and Thailand, its Namkhaeng sai.
A mishmashed version of Baobing came to Hawaii – known as Hawaiian shaved ice. It is shaved ice with condensed milk, adzuki beans, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or soft serve in the bottom and topped with a multitude of sweet treats.
This is like our local version of the Northern Kentucky Ice Ball and the Butler County Glacier – which are flavored sno-cones with soft serve or regular ice cream scooped in between. New Orleans has a popular version called the Sno-Ball, which has very fine, fluffy shaved particles, smaller than the typical sno-cone, invented by Ernest Hansen in 1934. His machine was perfected in 1939 by grocer George Ortolano which he called the Sno-Wizard and is the primary machine used in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Some sno-ball mashups are stuffed with soft serve, cheesecake, and marshmallow fluff.
Now every fast food chain has their own branded slush drink. Taco Bell probably has the most innovative line, which they call their Freezes. They’ve rode the coattails of Mountain Dew’s popularity with their Mountain Dew Baja Blast Freeze, and a limited time Birthday Cake Version of the Baja Blast with candy confetti. They also have had Pink Lemondade, Pina Colada, Pineapple Whip, and even crunchy candy flavored Freezes like Starburts and Skittles. Pepsico has partnered with Regal Theatres to have exclusive rights to their Mountain Dew Freeze. And, if you go to the UK you will see their version of the Freeze, the Tango Ice Blast, offered since 2001 at their popular cinema chains.
Burger King has teamed with Coca-Cola for their line of carbonated slushies, which include Fanta Orange, Fanta Cherry, Frozen Coke, and Frosted Coke – a combo of soft serve and slushie. They had a Halloween limited time slushie called the Scary Black Cherry that bombed about as hard as their Black Whopper.
Then there are the coffee flavored slushies. Starbucks has had their indulgent frappacinos – like panna cotta in Singapore and birthday cake. Dunkin Donuts has their Coolata line of slushie coffees. McDonald’s has their frozen coffees, but has done a horrible job of branding and marketing them. They had such an opportunity for a cool Mc-Name and even a new offshoot character to hang with Ronald and the Hamburgler. They also have Minute Maid fruit slushies in flavors like blue raspberry and fruit punch.
The chained ice cream shacks have their own slushie and ice cream slushie drinks. Sonic introduced in 2017 a blended ice cream frozen slush. Dairy Queen has their Misty Slushes and Misty Freezes – soft serve ice cream mixed with slushie.
Sherbert is the spoonable cousin to the slurpable ice cream slush drink and the fruit smoothie. Disneyland has its Dole Whips – a cross between an ice cream slushie and soft serve but more ice cream than an ice cream slush– fruit juice soft serve ice cream and frozen pineapple (or other tropical fruit) chunks.
The Orange Julius is another cousin to the slushie. It was invented in 1926 by Julius Freed and Bill Hamlin in Freed’s orange juice stand in Los Angeles. It is a mix of ice, orange juice, sweetener, milk, powdered egg whites and vanilla, similar to the Honduran morir sonando. The addition of dairy supposedly helped cut down the acid to make it less bothersome to the stomach.
Chick-fil-A has a version of the Orange Julius they call the Frosted Sunrise – a combo of soft serve ice cream and orange juice, that is reminiscent of a creamsicle.
So if you’re dairy intolerant, but sugar tolerant, there’s a whole world of slushie drinks and concoctions out there to cool you down this summer. Just drink them slowly to avoid brain freeze.