Food & Drink

Who says popsicles are just for kids? Try these boozy treats, frozen drinks and cocktails.

The Old Fashioned Popsicle from the 41 Hundred Lounge.
The Old Fashioned Popsicle from the 41 Hundred Lounge.

Skinny Freezers may be the most buzzworthy treats of the summer. Easily mistaken for the vibrant freezer pops of childhood, the 100-calorie vodka martinis for adults are pitched as “guilt-free.”

That’s different, however, from frustration-free. Costco is listed in various news reports as a national seller, but the pool- and party-friendly treats are not carried by its Triangle or Triad stores.

So, what is one to do if you crave a fashionably frozen cocktail?

Craig Rudewicz, founder of Raleigh’s Crude Bitters and Sodas, suggests consoling yourself at a local bar. Fox Liquor Bar, Vita Vite and Dram & Draught make creative frozen cocktails. Countless more offer chilly low-alcohol beverages made with local beers.

But like many others in the Triangle cocktail scene, Rudewicz said it’s not hard to make frosty or otherwise refreshing cocktails at home for summertime entertaining.

Boozy popsicles

Ariel Sutherland has a special twist on summer cocktails, one that’s perfect for July Fourth entertaining. Like Skinny Freezers, her specialty is a twist on a treat many of us have craved since childhood.

“Let gummy bears soak up your favorite spirit for about 24 hours, and you can use them to make terrific cocktail popsicles,” says Sutherland, who runs the Mad Science Mondays bar program at the 41Hundred Restaurant in the Renaissance Hotel at North Hills.

Diners have been cooling off with frosty Margarita popsicles. Containing eight to 10 booze-soaked gummy candies each, they have a decidedly adult kick.

RAL_ Margarita_Popsicle_41H
The Margarita Popsicle from the 41 Hundred Lounge. Stacey Sprenz

“It’s usually hard to make an alcohol popsicle at home, because they just won’t freeze, but the soaked gummies make it easy,” Sutherland says. “They’re definitely not for kids, but they really are simple, and the possibilities are endless.”

To create a patriotic cocktail pop for July Fourth, Sutherland suggests starting as she did, by picking up a set of inexpensive silicone popsicle molds and a bag of gummy candies. She’s loyal to Haribo Gummy Bears, which plump with alcohol and are not excessively sweet.

To create an adult popsicle that riffs on red, white and blue rocket pops, start by muddling fresh strawberries or raspberries with freshly squeezed lemon juice. Spoon the mixture and a couple of gin- or vodka-soaked red gummy candies into the base of each popsicle mold. Tuck upright in the freezer for about 15 minutes or until lightly set.

The “white” layer can be made from freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice and a few alcohol-infused clear gummies. Return to the freezer again before finishing with a layer of mashed blueberries and a few blue Curaçao-spiked gummies. Store in freezer until ready to serve.

For a fun garnish, Sutherland recommends rolling the tip of the finished popsicle in red Pop Rocks candy.

To make a kid-friendly version, substitute the drunken gummy bears with sober ones straight from the bag.

Slushies from a cocktail purist

Gary Crunkleton has built a well-earned reputation as a craft cocktail purist for his bar, The Crunkleton, in Chapel Hill. But at The Neighborhood Bar, a new Chapel Hill project he plans to open in August with Sam Suchow of The Pig, he’ll feature a pair of slushie machines.

Done right, he says, a boozy slush served from a spigot can be just as satisfying as a handmade cocktail. He cites the frozen gin and tonic on the menu at Leon’s in Charleston as a textbook example.

“It was surprisingly good and very refreshing,” he says. “They are low alcohol, so you can have several without worrying about getting drunk.”

Inexpensive Margarita or slushie makers sold in big-box stores for home rely on crushed ice to make inherently diluted frozen cocktails, a problem you can fix with an extra splash in your glass. The machines he’ll use will efficiently convert many standard cocktail recipes into pleasingly frosty sips.

Crunkleton urges frozen cocktail fans to ignore nay-sayers and enjoy the occasional date with brain freeze.

“Even those home machines turn out pretty good drinks,” says Crunkleton, noting they can crank out frosé, or frozen rosé, with ease. “I say, go for it. These drinks are fun and easy to do. It’s great way to enjoy a cocktail and extend a special hospitality for your guests.”

RAL_ IMG_Crunkleton
Gary Crunkleton of The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill. Courtesy of Gary Crunkleton

Frosty blender cocktails

Craig Rudewicz agrees. He teaches the art of cocktail making at The Bittery, including summer sips like a Frozen Negroni and Watermelon Rosé Slushie.

Rudewicz offers these tips for experimenting in making your own frosty cocktails:

▪ Too much alcohol will push the freezing point too low, and the mixture won’t freeze. About 1 ounce of alcohol per 3 to 4 ounces of mixer works well.

▪ Use chilled alcohol. Place alcohol in the freezer beforehand, and add it to the blender when needed. Chilled alcohol will not melt the ice as quickly.

▪ Sweetness is suppressed by temperature, so frozen cocktails need more sweetness to taste balanced. Usually, increasing the sugar content of a cocktail recipe by 50 percent works.

▪ Add a little extra water (or juice) for slushies and/or popsicles to freeze.

Beer cocktails

Of course, not every summer cocktail needs to be frozen. Chris Creech of The Glass Jug Beer Lab in Durham suggests that those looking for a refreshing drink look no further than their favorite local brewery.

Mixing equal parts of a low- to moderate-alcohol beer with a spritzy ginger ale, lemonade or grapefruit soda will deliver a shandy or radler. The additions increase the carbonation while decreasing the alcohol content, Creech says, “allowing you to throw a few more back to keep cool in the heat of summer.”

Among the local brews Creech suggests are Fullsteam Paycheck Pilsner, Raleigh Brewing Moravian Rhapsody, Foothills Torch Pilsner or Lynnwood Czech Yourself.

Fullsteam wants to get more folks to try a shandy, too. For each one ordered at the Durham taproom this month, $1 will go to North Carolina participants of the Transplant Games of America, which raises awareness of organ transplants and connects families who have experienced organ donations. Fullsteam founder Sean Lilly Wilson has a special affinity for the cause, having received a kidney donated by his wife, Carolyn.

RAL_ Watermelon_Basil_Sprit
Watermelon Basil Spritz. Stacey Sprenz

Pre-made options include the classic German Salzburger Stiegl Radler and the pride of Kansas City, Boulevard Brewing’s Ginger Lemon Radler.

Creech also recommends a zesty beer cocktail familiar to those who have traveled in Mexico. The classic Michelada starts with a Mexican lager, though he’s inclined to choose a local pilsner.

Salt the rim of a tall glass, then add two ounces of fresh-squeezed lime juice, two teaspoons of hot sauce (Cholula or Valentina work well), and 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce. Slowly pour in the beer and give the mixture a gentle stir.

“My take on the Michelada would be to reduce the lime juice by half and swap out the lager for your favorite non-fruited Gose or Berliner Weisse,” Creech says. “These German sour beers have a tart acidity that will work great with the spicy and savory notes from the hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce.”

Among the regional options he stocks are Mother Earth Berliner Weisse, Four Saints Gose and Steel String Beachmania.

Meanwhile, Raleigh photographer Stacey Sprenz likewise favors frost-free summer cocktails. Sprenz, an aficionado who has taught classes designed to demystify the craft of making delicious drinks at home, draws inspiration from the farmers market.

Her Watermelon Basil Spritz, offered here for single glass or a crowd-friendly pitcher, makes great use of farm-fresh produce.

Jill Warren Lucas is a Raleigh-based freelance writer. She can be reached at or on Twitter @jwlucasnc.

Watermelon Basil Spritz

Recipe by Stacey Sprenz

Basil Simple Syrup

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

2 cups basil leaves

Combine sugar and water over medium high heat. Stir occasionally until sugar is dissolved. Take off the heat and add the basil leaves. Stir to combine and let steep for 20 minutes. Strain into a container and refrigerate. Keeps for two weeks.

Cocktail for One

1 ounce gin

1 1/2 ounces watermelon juice

1/2 ounce basil simple syrup

1 bar spoon lime juice (1/4 teaspoon)

Sparkling rosé

1/2 dropper Crude Thai & Sweet Basil Bitters

Put ice in a cocktail pitcher. Add gin, watermelon juice, basil simple syrup and the lime juice. Stir to chill. Strain into a coupe glass and top with sparkling rosé. Add bitters and garnish with a basil leaf and a chunk of watermelon

Cocktails for a Crowd (Makes 8)

1 cup gin

1 1/2 cups watermelon juice

1/2 cup basil simple syrup

2 teaspoons lime juice

Sparkling rosé

Crude Thai & Sweet Basil Bitters

Chill the all of the ingredients except for gin and bitters. Add to the pitcher: gin, watermelon juice, basil simple syrup and lime juice. Stir to combine and pour 3 ounces into a coupe glass. Top with sparkling rosé, add 1/2 dropper of bitters, garnish with basil leaf and watermelon chunk.

Frozen Negroni

Recipe by Craig Rudewicz

3 1/2 ounces gin

3 ounces Campari

3 ounces sweet vermouth

3 1/2 cups ice

3 droppers Crude Rosemary-Grapefruit-Peppercorn Bitters

Orange slices (for garnish)

Combine gin, Campari, sweet vermouth and bitters in an airtight container. Place in freezer and freeze for at least 8 hours and up to three days.

When ready to serve, add chilled alcohol and ice to blender. Blend on high speed until uniform and smooth, about 30 seconds. Pour into rocks glasses or small wine glasses. Garnish with an orange slice and serve immediately.

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 drinks (or 1 to 2 very large slushies), depending on the size of the glasses used.

Watermelon Rosé Slushie

Recipe by Craig Rudewicz

12 ounces watermelon juice

5 ounces chilled vodka, gin or tequila

3 ounces chilled rosé wine

1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

3 to 4 tablespoons agave

3 droppers Crude Hibiscus-Lavender-Oak bitters

3 cups crushed ice

Pour the watermelon juice into an ice cube tray and freeze until solid, about 4 hours. In a blender, pulse the watermelon ice cubes with the rest of the ingredients until smooth. Add more agave if needed.

Divide among four chilled glasses and garnish with thin watermelon wedges. Serve immediately.

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 drinks (or 1 to 2 very large slushies), depending on the size of the glasses used.