Ice Cream Cocktails, Milwaukee-Style

Sep 8, 2017

Pink Squirrel, Grasshopper, Brandy Alexander, Banshee... Is there something uniquely Milwaukee about ice cream cocktails? 

That's the question Elina Kats of Glendale sent in to WUWM's Bubbler Talk. Elina says she always has been kind of fascinated by the drinks.

So to learn more, we headed into a time warp of sorts. Or, really, we just walked into a Bay View bar.

At Random is a Milwaukee institution, with its dimly-lit interior, twinkling lights, lounge music, naugahyde booths and curmudgeon-y style. It's a family affair owned by Ron and Shirley Zeller with additional bartending by their son Randy.

The At Random bar.
Credit Maayan Silver

As the voices of Frank Sinatra and other jazz crooners serenade the scene, customers peruse a thick, bound menu of blended and ice cream drinks. Perhaps unintentionally true to its name, folks will only know if the bar is open on a particular night if the neon open sign is lit. And there are some unstated rules. 

“Did you decide yet, honey, what you’d like?" Shirley asks Milwaukee food writer Lori Fredrich and her husband Paul.

"I think we’ll do a Pink Squirrel," she replies.

"And…?" queries Shirley. "We’re going to share," says Lori.

"OK, you can share now, but we’re not going to have sharing in the future,Shirley cautions. 

Milwaukee food writer Lori Fredrich and her husband Paul with their Pink Squirrel at At Random
Credit Maayan Silver

Shirley’s son Randy is the mix-master tonight. He says his father Ron, "would not want [At Random] to be known as 'the ice cream place.'" But the business offers a lot of ice cream drink options, and Randy says there's a crowd that likes them. "It's usually a good after-dinner drink," he says. "We get a lot of after- dinner people coming by."

Lori explains this is in line with the original Wisconsin post-WWII trend. "[Ice cream drinks] became popularized by the supper club, where the idea was you came, you sat at the bar, you grabbed your brandy old fashioned," she details. "In the meantime you order your food, you go to your table, you eat your steak and potatoes, and then you come back to the bar at the end, and have some sort of dessert. And usually that dessert is an ice cream drink. So, there’s this sort of full circle that begins and ends with the bar."

READ: Frozen and Boozy: 7 Alcoholic Ice Cream Drinks to Whet Your WhistleOnMilwaukee

At Random co-owner Shirley Zeller and her son Randy.
Credit Maayan Silver

Randy's father, Ron Zeller, originally worked at another Milwaukee cocktail bar, Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. Bryant’s current owner, John Dye, explains what’s uniquely Milwaukee about the almond-flavored and rose-hued Pink Squirrel that Lori and Paul ordered. 

“As far as we can figure, it was invented in the late '30s or early '40s by Bryant Sharp, who started Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge," he recounts. "It coincided with the invention of the blender, and Bryant’s picked up the use of the blender right around then.”

The ice cream cocktail has an earlier ancestor - the cream-based drink.

“We don’t know if the cream [based version] came first and then they’re like 'hmmm, let’s use ice cream,' or if, because this is Wisconsin, they started using ice cream [first] and then for those people outside of Wisconsin, they could just use cream," he laughs. 

Pink Squirrel at Bryant's Cocktail Lounge
Credit Maayan Silver

John does know that Bryant came up with the Pink Squirrel during a cocktail competition. "He invented three fairly famous ice cream drinks: the Pink Squirrel, the Banshee, which is a banana-flavored ice cream drink, and then the Blue Tail Fly, which is this delicious blue ice cream drink with an orange flavor.”

Lori says that these Milwaukee traditions are here to stay. "It’s like somebody took the milkshake and decided to kick it up a notch," she describes. "Ice cream and booze, most people think that’s a good idea."

“I think it’s fantastic idea! There should be more of that," question-asker Elina adds. "But for my sake it should probably be sorbet... because I'm lactose intolerant."

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