The Shirley Temple is the most enduring non-alcoholic drink that ever had the temerity to mimic the sophistication of an actual cocktail.
Watching kids order and sip Shirley Temples at a restaurant is adorable. It’s like watching a rooster trained to play tic-tac-toe or a monkey in a cowboy hat galloping about on a tiny pony. It’s as if you’re watching an actual human pretending to be an adult.
Oh… wait. I’ve been reliably informed that children are human. So I guess it’s more like watching a 5-year-old girl putting on lipstick or an 8-year-old boy striking his favorite Earl Sweatshirt pose.
I have several objections to the drink, but none are about kids pretending to be adults—playing adult is how they learn. It’s what they’re being served, and therefore what they’re learning, that’s wholly objectionable.
First, some backstory: The genesis of the Shirley Temple is a bit murky. Chasen’s Restaurant in Los Angeles makes a credible claim that it created the drink for the child actress of the same name. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, on Waikiki Beach, has also planted its flag as originator, although less convincingly. Shirley Temple herself, before she died in 2014 at the age of 85, recalled that she’d first been served her namesake drink at the Brown Derby, also in L.A.
Whatever. It really doesn’t matter from which effervescent and gaudy fountain it first emerged. The key thing is that it spread quickly and became a viral non-cocktail. By 1950 it was everywhere. It was one of the most popular drinks at Top of the Mark in San Francisco, although the high-class bar changed the name after Temple divorced and the bar manager decided the name “was no longer appropriate.” He also deemed it outdated, so he renamed it the Shari Robinson, after a starlet you remember from… well, actually, you don’t remember her. Nobody does. It’s not known how long the bar manager kept his job.
The recipe for the Shirley Temple varies slightly depending on where it’s served. But generally it’s a concoction of ginger ale (or sometimes 7Up) mixed with a little grenadine and served in a highball glass. The essential coup de grace? A cherry the color of a shiny new fire engine. That’s what made it sophisticated for kids.
I should admit here to some personal history with the Shirley Temple. I grew up with three brothers. On our occasional forays to fancy restaurants, some of us ordered a Roy Rogers and some of us ordered a Shirley Temple. Much embittered discussion ensued about the relative quality of each, and we developed fairly rigid allegiances. (I was a Roy Rogers man.)
Mostly I remember the sheen of sophistication. We clinked glasses, of course, saluted one another, and nodded our heads ponderously, like we’d seen adults do in black-and-white movies on TV. I learned in my later teens that the Roy Rogers and the Shirley Temple were pretty much the same drink (although the “base” of the Roy Rogers was typically cola). I remember thinking it another vile canard promulgated by manipulative adults. I have not fully recovered.
Of course, the Shirley Temple was not actually invented for kids, but for adults. The drink is, at root, a pacifier. It carves out space for the parents, who can briefly buy off their offspring when the family is trying to have a quiet dinner out. It’s a potable version of “Here’s the remote, honey, now shut up while mommy drinks her Manhattan.”
The Shirley Temple has history. It has lore. It has a cherry that can be seen from several blocks away.
So why hate on it? Several reasons.
For starters, it’s a drink that teaches faux sophistication. It makes the cocktail seem like an overhyped event, not a beacon of everyday civility. It teaches kids that celebrity has value and pays in lasting fame. It trains their developing brains to clamor for those very things that will put them on an endless, ultimately fruitless battle against obesity. (Brain says: “Sweet! Fancy! Good! More!”) It sends all the wrong messages.
But most tragically of all, it teaches bad taste. A good cocktail resides in a citadel of balance—sour, bitter, sweet, sharp. It’s like a massive steel Calder mobile that hangs perfectly but is so delicate it can be moved by a faint breeze.
What is a Shirley Temple? It is sweet mixed with sweet, garnished with a crimson dollop of sweet. It’s an underground bunker of a drink, able to withstand direct assault.
Fixing this problem is not especially vexing. We just need to invent a popular kids cocktail that conveys actual sophistication—maybe a touch of sour or bitter, coaxed into palatability with sweet. Something that demonstrates that life is varied and full of offsetting complications. Life is not just sweet, and for that we should be thankful.
I’m not the only one who objects to the Shirley Temple. One other person never really liked it either. Her name was Shirley Temple. She was tormented by them throughout her long life. Bartenders and waiters and fellow diners would send them to her, finding it uproariously funny.
She played along, because she was a good person.
“The saccharine sweet, icky drink?” she replied to an NPR interviewer who asked her about the drink in 1986. “I had nothing to do with it. But, all over the world, I am served that. People think it’s funny. I hate them.”
“Too sweet!” she said.