One of the earliest formative cocktail moments I recall is actually not about a cocktail at all. I’ll never forget going to a family member’s wedding and standing in line at the bar, getting in front of the bartender and excitedly saying, “One Shirley Temple, please!” My 9-year-old self took a sip of the red, fizzy drink in a highball glass adorned with maraschino cherries, and it felt like the height of sophistication. Even as an adult, the iconic drink still has a place in my heart (and highball).
I think it’s time to admit that the Shirley Temple is a drink deserving of some respect. And 6-year-old Leo Kelly ― aka The Shirley Temple King, who’s gone viral for his Instagram critiques of Shirley Temples ― has brought the spotlight back to the drink in recent weeks. It’s about time.
Nonalcoholic cocktails are having a moment, after all. They’ve become more popular in recent years thanks to bartenders getting more creative, coupled with the fact that people are generally drinking less alcohol. It’s not that uncommon to find a dedicated zero-proof cocktail section with drinks containing shrubs, tinctures and special juices, making it easier for people abstaining from alcohol to have a drink that’s a little more special than a glass of soda or water. But the Shirley Temple is the reigning queen of mocktails and more often than not, it’s overlooked in favor of something that seems more adult-like.
The drink is named after the eponymous child star of the 1930s. Rumor has it, she was out to dinner with her parents and bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t have a cocktail, so the restaurant whipped her up a mocktail that she could sip on. It’s not entirely clear which restaurant was the first to whip up the drink ― some say it was Chasen’s in Hollywood, while the Royal Hawaiian Hotel claims it was the spot. Temple actually hated the drink and even went to court twice when soda companies tried to sell canned versions of the drink using her name. She may have been successful in keeping her name off grocery store shelves, but it’s still alive and well in bars around the country.
When it comes to making a proper Shirley Temple, there isn’t an agreed-upon recipe. More often than not, it’s a blend of lemon-lime soda, ginger ale, a splash of grenadine and a garnish of maraschino cherries. Some people make the base with just ginger ale, some just with lemon-lime soda, and some a mix of the two ― but there’s always a maraschino cherry garnish.
Paul Dunn, general manager of Davio’s in Atlanta, thinks it’s key to have both types of soda in the drink. “The lemon-lime soda is sweet while the ginger ale adds bitterness. Using both balances it a little bit more. It just adds another little dimension to it,” he said. Bonus points if the drink is served in an elegant glass just like the “grown-up” drinks.
It’s no surprise to him that the Shirley Temple is still going strong despite mocktails getting more creative. Dunn told HuffPost, “It’s a classic drink, and I think a lot of people like to eat and drink what they’re familiar with.” Sometimes you don’t want to put a lot of thought into the drink you’re ordering, and you want something that’s festive. “With the Shirley Temple, you can dress it up a little bit and make it look fancy or if you want it to look like you have a cocktail, it kind of suits both purposes,” Dunn said. So while creative booze-less concoctions abound, it’s nice to know you can order a reliable Shirley Temple and get exactly what you want.
Or so you might think. In this world of craft cocktails, more often than not, I find that I’m handed a drink that doesn’t even resemble the beloved Shirley Temple. One particularly horrific example of this was in an Atlanta restaurant where I was given a club soda with muddled cherries, and cherry syrup was used to sweeten it. I could possibly have let the club soda slide: after all these drinks are pretty sugary. But muddled cherries? Half the fun is biting into them after they’ve soaked in the drink. And cherry syrup? It’s sacrilege. This may come as a surprise to the casual Shirley Temple drinker, but grenadine is actually not a cherry flavor; it’s pomegranate. Mass-produced versions use high fructose corn syrup, giving it a reputation for being sickly sweet, but in my experience as a self-proclaimed Shirley Temple connoisseur, that cloyingly sweet syrup is precisely what’s needed to bring back that flood of childhood memories that are so strongly associated with the drink.
That said, there are some acceptable variations of grenadine when concessions must be made. At Durham, North Carolina’s Jack Tar and the Colonel’s Daughter, they make their grenadine from scratch. “It’s just a process of love,” said general manager Jim McKay. “It’s a lot of low simmering. It’s pomegranate juice, molasses, sugar, lemon juice, some rose water, and you just simmer and reduce that until it becomes a syrup.” They then combine it with Mexican Sprite and a garnish of maraschino cherries. “If it doesn’t have a maraschino cherry, it’s not a Shirley Temple,” McKay said.
I love sipping a fancy zero-proof cocktail, but ordering a Shirley Temple — made properly — still sends a shiver of delight down my back. It’s kind of like I’m sneakily blending in with the grown-ups, even if these days I actually am one.