Boozy Milkshakes

By on Monday, May 9th, 2011

In other parts of the country–the world, even–a classic burger meal (burger, fries and a shake) is seen as something simple, so often associated with fast food and unhealthfulness.

Salty Caramel and Bananas Foster spiked shakes at 25 Degrees. Photo courtesy Katherine Spiers

But Angelenos know better. In this city, the place that actually invented drive-thrus, burgers are an art form elevated with custom blends of meat and toppings like artisanal cheeses and heritage tomatoes and organic bacon. And now it’s the milkshake’s turn.

Where burgers are improved largely by the quality of the ingredients, these new wave milkshakes aren’t just getting a makeover with expensive vanilla and rare brands of chocolate. Here, the special kick is alcohol.

Now That’s a Shake

Spiked milkshakes are making the rounds in Southern California, and the craze is even extending to Las Vegas. Chef Anthony Meidenbauer at Holsteins at The Cosmopolitan says. “There is nothing more Americana than a burger and milkshake, and it was a natural fit to add alcohol to make milkshakes more suited to adults.” And now, savvy burger joints with a liquor license have added tequila and bourbon to their shake recipes.

While they are becoming de rigueur in upscale burger places like GO Burger and 25 Degrees across L.A., spiked shakes are also showing up as dessert specials in other restaurants. Mariah Swan, known for her innovative desserts at Grace and BLD, now serves milkshakes at the latter on the last Sunday of every month.

Mariah Swan at BLD in Los Angeles considers spiked milkshakes the newest adult dessert.

A self-described “milkshake fanatic,” Swan believes that with the emerging cocktail culture across the U.S., “we now compete with cocktails for calories. Instead of fighting that, I wanted to work with it.”

She invented sophisticated combinations such as tequila and caramel, and lime, gin and elderflower liqueur, but finds that classic dessert flavors, like spiked mint chip, are her most popular creations.

Cocktail or Dessert?

Tim Goodell, chef and owner of 25 Degrees in Hollywood, also likes to play on tried-and-true desserts for his flavor combinations. His Bananas Foster contains Captain Morgan’s rum, banana, butterscotch liqueur, Myers dark rum and vanilla ice cream. The Salty Caramel plays with the most popular non-spiked dessert in L.A. right now, with bourbon, butterscotch, and vanilla ice cream topped with red Hawaiian sea salt.

Swan serves small tasters of her creations in in sets of three. Photo courtesy BLD.

For Goodell, it’s all about updating a childhood memory. “Growing up in Newport Beach, I would ride my bike to the beach. On the way home, I would always stop at a popular local restaurant that served milkshakes. On cooler days, they would serve chocolate shakes, on warmer days, vanilla and on really hot days they would serve strawberry shakes. So, there is something really nostalgic about milkshakes for me.”

This reminiscing with alcohol truly became a craze with this year’s arrival of GO Burger, whose milkshakes have especially captured the attention of L.A.’s dining public. (Which is no wonder, really, with a new flavor every week along with standbys like Grandma’s Treat, with Maker’s Mark, vanilla ice cream and caramel, and Aztec Mocha, with tequila, coffee ice cream, cayenne pepper and chocolate syrup.)

General Manager Dan Reineke says the inspiration at GO Burger was as simple as wanting “to create something unique using a classic all-American dessert, something that would make our customer go ‘wow.’ Although liquor is traditionally used in many desserts, no one at the time was spiking shakes. It’s a perfect combination, actually, since many ice cream flavors and textures complement different types of alcohol.” The bartenders and cooks at the restaurant (there’s also one in New York) often try to “convert traditional desserts into milkshake form. What’s better than drinking a slice of apple pie or an order of flan?”

GO Burger's Monkey Business milkshake. Photo © Alex Vasilescu

It is a beautifully simple way of keeping adults and their wallets interested in these calorie-bomb, all-American desserts. “I think that’s the beauty of our concept,” says Reineke. “It brings the traditional food that we grew up with and steps it up. Milkshakes are a staple of dessert menus that we wanted to flip and make more appealing.”

Accordingly, there seems to be an unspoken agreement among chefs that they don’t want to get too complicated with this cocktail dessert. James Starr, whose Golden State Café is infamous across L.A. for its beer floats, doesn’t think he’ll add booze-spiked treats to his menu if and when the restaurant gets a liquor license. “This whole place is just things we like.”

Likewise, Goodell didn’t want to over-think it. “I combined two great dining experiences,” he says. “Dessert and cocktails.”

Swan says of her small-batch creations, “I try to do more sophisticated, adult flavors, but ultimately, it’s a big, messy milkshake. I never want to take it too seriously.”

Taste Familiar?

Funnily enough, milk-based cocktails used to be standard in U.S. bars. Tricia Alley, currently at B-Side Bar and one of L.A.’s top cocktail creators, says that Brandy Milk Punch, Ramos Fizz, Irish Coffee and Alexanders were once commonly ordered. She believes spiked milkshakes have a perfect home at burger restaurants, and that “the emergence of milkshake into craft cocktail culture is very logical. And delicious.”

“I try to do more sophisticated, adult flavors, but ultimately, it’s a big, messy milkshake. I never want to take it too seriously.”–Mariah Swan

One of her favorite cocktails at the moment, served at The Spare Room, includes cacao, coffee Herring and vodka, served on the rocks with a layer of heavy cream, and garnished with a lemon twist. It’s not a milkshake per se … but it’s certainly influenced by them. It’s called I Drink Your Milkshake!, after all.

There is no end to the combinations that can be created when faced with any type of alcohol and any type of dessert. Mixology masterminds Alie Ward and Georgia Hardstark, who host a cocktail show and do events around the city, recently created one for comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s birthday party, with vanilla ice cream, grape vodka and frozen grape juice concentrate sipped through a purple, grape-flavored Red Vine.

It may not be as refined as tequila and cayenne pepper, but it’s fun. And that’s the point of these grown-up desserts.

Written by Katherine Spiers

Katherine Spiers is a freelance journalist who made it her life's work to show people that L.A., her beloved adopted home, is a world-class food destination. She writes for BlackBook, LA Weekly and Budget Travel.


  1. Milkshakes! Booze! Hooray! #LA

  2. Paul Brady says:

    Pretty much summing it up here. RT @katherinespiers: Milkshakes! Booze! Hooray! #LA

  3. A cocktail AND a dessert: Featuring @chefswan, @HolsteinsLV, @alieandgeorgia, @goburgerla, @25degreesburger….

  4. Mariah Swan says:

    Toque magazine on BLD's spiked milkshakes:
    RT @ToqueMag: Boozy Milkshakes
    Come in May 22 and check them out!!

  5. RT @katherinespiers: A cocktail AND a dessert: Featuring @chefswan, @HolsteinsLV, @alieandgeorgia, @goburgerla, @25 …

  6. RT @katherinespiers: A cocktail AND a dessert: Featuring @chefswan, @HolsteinsLV, @alieandgeorgia, @goburgerla, @25 …

  7. Mariah Swan says:

    RT @katherinespiers: A cocktail AND a dessert: Featuring @chefswan, @HolsteinsLV, @alieandgeorgia, @goburgerla, @25 …

  8. Boozy milkshakes & other reasons we deserve the blog gold from @goldenfoodie

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