How the Dirty Shirley Became the Drink of the Summer
Besides being unequivocally delicious!
If you’ve been anywhere near the Internet this summer, you stand a pretty good chance of having encountered some mention of the cocktail known as the Dirty Shirley. If not via a drink trend piece declaring this cocktail the “Drink of the Summer,” then maybe you’ve seen one of the zillions of social media posts hyping — or deriding — this vibrantly red-toned and cherry-topped drink. Better yet, you might have even found yourself at one of the many bars and restaurants serving it and wondered why it’s there (and what happened to prior-of-the-moment drinks like the Espresso Martini or hard seltzers!). Whether you’re a fan, a skeptic, or somewhere in between, it is hard to deny the drink’s current ubiquity. But why is it seemingly so popular right now?
As someone who’s spent over a decade creating, serving and writing about drinks and cocktails, I want to try to explain this phenomenon because I think there are a few forces at work here. But first, let’s back up.
A Dirty Shirley is simply a Shirley Temple with vodka. And the Shirley Temple is the most famous non-alcoholic cocktail we have. It’s a simple mixture of lemon-lime soda, grenadine and ice, topped off with a neon-red cocktail cherry. The exact origins of the drink are somewhat murky, but it is safe to say that it originated in Los Angeles in the 1930s. The titular actor has gone on record to say that she had nothing to do with the drink’s creation — and thought they were too sweet — but nonetheless the name stuck. Despite being only a few ingredients, this drink can vary widely depending on the type of soda (some use ginger ale instead of lemon-lime) as well as what type of grenadine is used. Store-bought gives that iridescent-red pop, while homemade, natural pomegranate-juice-based grenadines will taste better but look less impressive.
Somewhere along the way, someone thought to add vodka to this drink, and the Dirty Shirley was born. But how do we explain the drink’s current star turn? I propose that four key things are going on that not only explain the rise of the Dirty Shirley but are also helpful in understanding what forces shape our ever-evolving cocktail culture.
Cocktails and nostalgia go hand in hand. Back in the early days of the 21st Century cocktail renaissance, we relied on the feeling of prohibition-era hidden bars and uncovering cocktail recipes and ingredients from centuries past in order to establish a sense of legitimacy to the craft. Now that craft cocktail culture is taken more seriously, we can have a bit more fun. My first Shirley Temple was at a kitschy Chinese restaurant in the early 1990s, and I suspect that many people of drinking age have similar fond memories of this drink from their childhood. What a perfect way to revisit a carefree childhood memory while unwinding from the day’s stress than with a drink like this?
2. The Pandemic
The Dirty Shirley is a cheap, eye-catching drink that requires little explanation and little training on the part of the person making it. During the pandemic, restaurants and bars closed; workers fell ill; and many talented professionals left the industry for good. The industry was forced to adapt by reducing hours, trimming menus and getting by with less.
3. It’s Adequately Delicious
I’m sure there are plenty of bartenders who roll their eyes at the thought of serving a Dirty Shirley, and insist that people can do better. To them I say, so what if they can? I am a huge proponent of letting people enjoy things. If made with integrity, a Dirty Shirley is a delightful, low-lift drink. Don’t like vodka? Simply swap it out for your favorite spirit; gin, tequila, rum or even whiskey would work well in vodka’s stead.
Next time you find yourself wondering why you’re seeing so much hype devoted to a given drink, keep these factors in mind. And if you’re on the fence about hopping on a bandwagon, relax, there are way too many real things to worry about besides whether or not someone approves of your cocktail choice. If you don’t like it, move on! And honestly, more often than not, things are popular for a reason — they’re good.