(Wow!) Cocktail Floats

by Emily Bell
Aliza Elizarov and Will Blunt
December 2014



The phrase "cocktail float" might seem like something to run from—ideally right through the window of the T.G.I. Friday’s you half-ironically stumbled into. Except ours is an age of mellowed, melded mixology, where “sophisticated” has learned to relax its perfectionism into a kind of frilly perversion of itself. (Also known as fun.)

Hence, the emergence of cocktail floats. Not the studied layered drinks like the Pousse-Café, but a simpler, slicker, scoopable form familiar to anyone who once was a child. Inspirations, just as modern bar perspectives, are delightfully varied. For Chantal Tseng of D.C.'s Mockingbird Hill, the idea for her Oloroso Float is faithfully rooted in a classic. "The first time I created an alcoholic ice cream cocktail was after reading about the 'Soyer au Champagne,'" she says, referring to the late 19th century drink that pairs Champagne with vanilla ice cream, Maraschino liqueur, curacao, brandy, and a veritable Thanksgiving cornucopia of fruit garnishes.

Tseng recreated the drink at her former stomping grounds, The Tabard Inn, in 2008/2009. But where the Soyer au Champagne seems dashingly celebratory, Tseng's Oloroso Float is sophisticated and playful. Oloroso's oxidative aging lends a dark, rich complement to the local Dolcezza gelato—Tseng prefers either hazelnut or dulce de leche, stored close to the bar—all of it cut through with the carbonation and bracing acidity of an Italian bitter orange soda. "The bitter orange in the Chinotto soda is another flavor pairing that is magical with the nuttier Sherries, particularly in stirred aromatic cocktails," says Tseng.

The question of what alcohol to feature in a cocktail float is crucial. Given its ability to balance, emphasize, and just swirl its way around the sweet-savory divide, Sherry is an ideal float spirit. Witness Chef Haidar Karoum's Sherry Float at Estadio. Made in consultation with Wine Director Max Kuller, the Sherry Float at this D.C. establishment is meant much more earnestly, and effectively, as a dessert (hence the three ounces of vanilla ice cream in contrast to Tseng's single scoop of gelato).

But for Karoum, that was the idea: making a dessert more accessible by treating it like a drink. "One point of inspiration was the affogato—a classic Italian dessert that is delicious and very approachable," says Karoum, who opted for the sweet, weighty Moscatel Sherry as a more flavorful à la mode plunge. Sherry was an obvious choice “because of the way it worked with the ice cream—it not only added sweetness like a syrup, but also a depth that syrup couldn't offer."

The concept of depth is key here, as with any fun drink. The sweetness of floats requires an anchor to keep them from the dangers of cloying, and this concept keeps the endless cocktail float variety going. Just ask Tenzin Samdo. He works out of Trade in Boston, where people bike to work and health consciousness has taken a hearty stranglehold on a city known for plentiful beer, and daylight excuses to drink it. "People are very health-savvy. They don't want anything too sweet," says Samdo (whose citrus-peel garnishes are a thing of Instagram-beauty, BTW).

Samdo started with simple playfulness (he's already made Sex on the Beach popsicles). But he moved quickly into an almost savory complexity: early experiments with passionfruit gave way to the Concorde Grape Negroni. Essentially a Negroni poured over locally made (and seasonally brief) Concorde grape sorbet. It’s that wink of salt that ties the drink together—and draws even a healthy clientele to this dessert-alcohol mash-up. "That pinch of salt cuts down a lot on the sugar that's in the sorbet," says Samdo, who (not so) coincidentally had just come from a punch seminar with Dave Wondrich. His takeaway? The sentiment behind the smile that follows a drink like the cocktail float isn’t levity, or frivolity, but joy. "That smile, it actually kind of makes you want to do so much better next time. I want to wow them!"