When I Quit Drinking, Shirley Temples Made Going Out Fun Again

When I Quit Drinking, Shirley Temples Made Going Out Fun Again

In Underrated we review the ordinary rituals we build around food. Next up: drinking a Shirley Temple.

You probably last drank a Shirley Temple at your third-grade classmate’s laser tag birthday party with a slice of bad pizza on a plastic Toy Story–branded tablecloth. Or maybe you had it “dirty” with a shot of vodka back in 2022, when everyone from the New York Times to Business Insider named it the drink of the summer. That’s when I began drinking them again myself—strictly the G-rated kind with grenadine, Sprite, and a maraschino cherry. The year 2022 also happened to be when I quit drinking and abdicated all claims to future Drinks of the Summer. I’m pleased to report that the kid-friendly version still gives you all the same feelings from the last time you had one: excitement, pleasure, and the optimism of a person who didn’t yet know back pain.

When I quit drinking I had no idea what to do with myself in restaurants, where my sobriety stuck in my throat every time I was asked for my drink order. I was possessed, routinely, by the urge to apologize to my server for making them bring me some boring crap we both knew I didn’t want. To be fair, many menus did have a mocktails section with some tempting offerings. But, living in New York, I was insulted by the idea of paying craft cocktail prices for something that would by definition fail to get me drunk.

Then I found myself heading to a party hosted by the intimidatingly cool newsletter Dirt, where there would be an open bar. I dreaded the prospect of spending the evening schlepping around my usual pint glass full of soda with bitters, a grim and unwieldy cocktail that might as well be called The Ugh. But instead, when I arrived, I saw her winking at me from the cocktail menu across the room—in oh-so-trendy “dirty” form, true, but it was still like going to a party where you think you won’t know anybody and then seeing an old friend unexpectedly. I beelined for her, my heart pounding.

“Hi there,” I said to the bartender, my eyes still glued to the menu as if I thought she might disappear from it any second. “Could I have a Shirley Temple?”

“One Dirty Shirley coming right up,” he said.

NO,” I said casually. I would be forced to make this distinction regularly during the Summer of the Dirty Shirley, and never managed to do so with any grace. “Uh. Sorry. Just a regular Shirley, please.”

But the drink he served me didn’t look like “just a regular” anything. The Shirley Temple came in a highball glass topped with a skewer of three velvety Luxardo cherries. What had I done to deserve such opulence? A half-inch of neon pink grenadine climbed up the bottom of the glass, the pale Sprite burbling away like witch’s brew. It didn’t look like one of my sorry soda and bitters, that’s for sure. It didn’t even look like a cocktail. It just looked perfectly, unmistakably like a Shirley Temple. And it tasted third-grade-birthday-party delicious, its saccharine fruitiness tempting me with a good old-fashioned sugar rush.

“Wow!” said a stranger standing nearby—I would soon learn that this is people’s standard response to seeing a Shirley Temple appear in their vicinity. “I want one of those!”

That first Shirley was a revelation. Never again would I be forced to order drinks like “whatever nonalcoholic beer is the least sad” or “just water, I guess, and I’m so sorry for being alive”—I had a true signature drink now. I drink them everywhere I go and have begun to notice the whimsy that passes between me and my server whenever I order one. “A Shirley Temple! Sure thing!” Always with an exclamation point, as if we’re sharing a lark, and maybe we are—Lord knows I feel larky with a Shirley in my hand. Drinking a Shirley Temple is like going out with your extroverted friend: She makes you want to rise to the occasion, be as much fun as she is. Unlike boring old soda water, she’s warm and inviting, and unlike the lavish nonalcoholic bevs crammed with adaptogens and obscure herbal ingredients, she’s special without trying too hard.

And I began to notice, too, that vodka sodas and whiskey cokes are pretty much the same everywhere you go, but every Shirley is a little different. At Caveat, a comedy club on the Lower East Side, Shirley went goth with plum-colored housemade grenadine and black cherries on top. A tiki bar in Bushwick called Dromedary adorned her with tropical fruits and flowers a la Carmen Miranda. My local dive bar serves her shaken up with a single maraschino cherry: minimalist Shirley, no nonsense. She can be sugary-sweet or more sour and mature. She looks great in a highball, rocks glass, or champagne flute—hell, she’ll even tolerate a shot of vodka with a good-natured eye roll, if you absolutely insist. She doesn’t even mind when fanciful bartenders top her with umbrellas or swords. Why should she? She’s having too good a time.

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