How To Make A Dirty Shirley, The Unofficial Drink Of Summer

The classic “kiddie cocktail” has a new lease on life with fresher, upscale ingredients — and a shot of booze.
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The Rooftop at The Wayfarer

It’s official: A drink named for a movie star is what everyone’s quaffing this summer. The Dirty Shirley is growing in popularity as temperatures rise, with the hashtag #dirtyshirley trending at more than 10 million on TikTok.

If you’re looking for a little backstory, here you go: Ninety years ago, Shirley Temple was a box office dynamo, reigning supreme in a stream of movies in which she pouted pertly, tap danced prettily and tossed about her famous ringlet curls to the envy of little girls everywhere.

Her childhood fame was so enormous that it led to the creation of the OG mocktail, the Shirley Temple, which traditionally is made with lemon-lime soda or ginger ale, a dash of grenadine and a maraschino cherry. The movie star eventually grew up, changed her name to Shirley Temple Black when she married, and went on to do great things, including serving as United States ambassador to Ghana and what was then Czechoslovakia.

“It’s not a serious drink, and after the last few very serious years we all deserve some lightheartedness.”

- Lauren Pellecchia, mixologist

As with most things that are adorably nostalgic and retro, enterprising souls have found a way to make it a lot more fun with a newly-naughty version. The eponymous cocktail has now grown up and changed its name too, thanks to the addition of a shot of vodka.

Jim Wrigley, beverage manager at Cayman Islands’ Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa’s Coccoloba restaurant, explained: “The term ‘sucio,’ which means ‘dirty’ in Spanish, is used ubiquitously to mean adding a shot of booze to anything non-alcoholic.” (Want to honor the grownup instead of the kid? Subbing in dark rum creates a Shirley Temple Black, naturally.)

Simple And Trending: Here’s The Recipe

“A Dirty Shirley is the cocktail version of comfort food — with a cherry on top,” said Emily Darchuk, founder and CEO of Wheyward Spirit, a woman-owned and operated sustainable distilled spirit company. “It’s the quintessential mocktail with an adult twist, and it’s a refreshing upgrade from a typical soda mixer. Plus, there’s that added nostalgia and the beautiful ‘look at me’ pink color to enjoy on equally vibrant summer days.”

Mixologist Lauren Pellecchia agreed: “It’s a big seller with the 25-to-35 age demographic, I think because it’s nostalgic, fun and just flat-out tastes really good. It’s not a serious drink, and after the last few very serious years we all deserve some lightheartedness. A Dirty Shirley is something that anyone can make at home and confidently order out at the bar — which is not always the case for other drinks that have been popular over the past few years.”

There are tons of variations (which we’ll get to in a minute), but the basic recipe is simple: Over an ice-filled Collins glass, add 2 ounces vodka, 1 ounce grenadine and 8 ounces lemon-lime soda or ginger ale. Add a maraschino cherry. Drink up, and feel yourself starting to drift away on the Good Ship Lollipop.

Your soda preferences might depend on where you grew up. “I’ve learned there’s a regional divide,” Pellecchia said. “I grew up in Ohio, with a Sprite or 7-Up base, but in other parts of the country, ginger ale was the norm. I now love the hint of ginger that a splash of ginger ale gives to the drink.”

And, she noted, pay attention to the type of vodka you use: “You need a good vodka, for sure. I’m really liking Broken Shed right now.”

How To Tone Down The Sweetness

In the same way that a grown-ass adult can only listen to so many renditions of a Shirley Temple song, you might reach your sugar intake limit after just one of these glow-in-the-dark cocktails. No worries — mixologists have responded.

“Both Shirley Temples and Dirty Shirleys are classic drinks that will never go out of style,” said Carlos Kronen, executive director of The Bartender Company. “That being said, in the San Francisco area, where I live, we’ve noticed a shift toward beverages with lower sugar content.”

“One modification we’ve made to meet the shifting demand is to swap club soda in for Sprite, which significantly lowers the amount of sugar in the drink,” Kronen continued.

Still crave a bit of sweetness? Kronen suggested this: “Consider using Mexican Sprite, which uses real sugar cane instead of high-fructose corn syrup. The quality is higher, the flavor is brighter and it’s less processed.”

Brandon Julien, head bartender at ANA Bar & Eatery at New York’s Hudson Yards, is all about the balance: “The last thing you want is a drink that tastes too sweet like cough syrup, or too sour to the point you pucker up. I’ve found that Black Infusions dark cherry vodka elevates the cocktail with a natural sweetness that isn’t overpowering, so I make my Dirty Shirley with 2 ounces Black Infusions dark cherry, 2 ounces ginger ale and 1/4 ounce fresh lime juice.”

Julien also noted that there’s an option for on-the-go: “Black Infusions recently came out with a canned Dirty Shirley, so they’ve done all of the work for you.”

A Dirty Shirley made with Black Infusions dark cherry vodka.
Black Infusions
A Dirty Shirley made with Black Infusions dark cherry vodka.

Tips For Making Dirty Shirleys At Home

If you’re making Dirty Shirleys at home, you can add all sorts of upscale twists, but the key, as in cooking, is to taste as you go. “Less is more when it comes to the grenadine and soda,” said Joseph Neis, senior food and beverage manager at Conrad New York Downtown. “Before following a recipe, add a little bit of each of those ingredients, taste the drink and see if you like it. You can always add more, but once it’s in the cocktail, you can never take it away.”

Pellecchia suggested using Luxardo cherries and juice as a special touch. “I also enjoy adding a dash or two of bitters,” she said. “You can never go wrong with Angostura, but I’ve really liked adding Tao Bitters Sweet Ginger. It has a ginger base with coriander and pepper notes with a hint of mint, all of which complement the flavors of the cocktail.”

Some mixologists insist on using homemade grenadine. If the idea of making homemade ingredients is daunting, never fear. Darchuk shared her own “secret ingredient” recipe and the reasoning behind it: “Making your own grenadine syrup at home from pomegranate juice will give the cocktail a deeper — and more natural — flavor, but the color will be less cherry-red than the artificially colored store-bought syrups. To brighten the red color, I add hibiscus leaves for color and to infuse a nice tartness.”

“Secret Ingredient” Homemade Grenadine From Wheyward Spirit’s Emily Darchuk

  • 2 cups pomegranate juice
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon orange extract
  • 5 to 6 dried hibiscus flowers

Heat and stir sugar and juice on the stove until boiling, then remove from heat. Add leaves and allow the mixture to steep while cooling. Remove leaves and store syrup in the refrigerator, adding a splash of alcohol to the syrup to increase its shelf life.

Now that you’ve gotten into the DIY spirit, consider upping your vodka game, as well. From cookbook author and food photographer Jackie Alpers comes this suggestion to add flavor to the base alcohol: “Make your own infused cherry vodka by smashing and soaking cherries in the alcohol. Be sure to use good vodka, like Tito’s Handmade Vodka.” Other elements in her cocktail: “Sparkling lemon-lime flavored mineral water instead of soda and a splash of Rose’s lime juice for a little extra sweetness.”

A Lower ABV Recipe

“I’m a real sommelier but a lazy at-home mixologist, and I like to have a summer cocktail without getting drunk,” said Cara Patricia, CEO and co-founder of DECANTsf, a woman-, queer- and BIPOC-owned bottle shop and bar in San Francisco.

Her version provides a more session-able cocktail. “For a low ABV Dirty Shirley, I mix 1.5 ounces Manzanilla or Fino sherry and 1.5 ounces Istine Rosé Vermouth di Radda in a highball glass with ice, add half a can of Spindrift Lemon Seltzer, a squeeze of lemon and a fresh summer cherry to garnish.”

Serving Suggestions

Before you get started, remember this advice from Wrigley: “Chill everything! This drink is boozy and sweet, and the colder it is, the less those two characteristics take over. Keep glasses in the freezer, use loads of ice and keep the booze and lengthener (lemon lime soda or ginger ale) in the fridge.”

“This drink should be built in the glass, so no shaker is needed,” Pellecchia said. “Just stir it gently with a spoon or straw to combine. I do like to use a Collins ice cube, which is a long, rectangular cube, because it slows dilution.”

Darchuk agreed but prefers a different type of ice: “The rate of dilution is important, so serve it in a right-sized Collins glass and on crushed or pebble ice along with a straw or swizzle to allow mixing while sipping.”

Of course, there’s always the opportunity to embrace your inner child when you’re making this particular cocktail. “When I was a kid, the Shirley Temples I got were never big enough,” Alpers said. “If you’re the same way, serve yours in a really big glass, like a pilsner, and add extra cherries — lots of them.”

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