Milkshakes have been around a long time, but the cool, creamy drink is having a resurgence of popularity thanks to new flavors and old favorites at these iconic soda shops around the South.
Milkshakes are an American classic and a longtime summer favorite. They became especially popular during the soda fountain days of the 1950s and ‘60s (although they were around long before that) and have remained a part of our culture ever since. Old time diners and drugstore restaurants continue to serve those much-favored traditional milk and ice cream drinks, while a new wave of businesses now offer people a chance to create their own milkshakes with a wide range of syrups, toppings, and different flavors.
Milkshakes, as we know them today – containing a mixture of ice cream and milk began in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the invention of the drink mixer, and later the electric blender in 1922, that they began appearing on restaurant menus. It was during that same year that Ivar “Pop” Coulson of Walgreen’s added ice cream to the malted milk drink and invented the malted milkshake.
Shakes have been around ever since. For some, there’s a special kind of nostalgia in having a shake at a place that’s been serving them for decades.
Nashville’s Elliston Place Soda Shop first opened in 1939 and remains the city’s oldest, continuously operating restaurant at the same location.
“It started out as a pharmacy and a general store with a soda fountain,” says General Manager Linda Melton, who has worked there for 27 years. “The original owner convinced the pharmacist that this could become a stand-alone restaurant. So they subdivided it. We serve a great burger and fries, excellent meat-and-3s (a meat and three sides), and milkshakes. We have people come in just for the shakes.”
She says the way they make them differs slightly from a lot of other places.
“Most people use vanilla ice cream, but the vanilla ice cream kind of takes away from the actual flavoring because vanilla has a flavor of its own. So, we use a shake base which has no flavoring and we add our flavors like chocolate or strawberries, and all the fresh toppings.”
They’re thick and creamy and people like them that way.
Based in a city known for music, Elliston Place has seen a lot of artists use its soda fountain backdrop for music videos, and many stars often drop by to eat. Guests have included Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Kelly Clarkson, Toby Keith, John Schneider, Jimmy Buffett, and many others.
The food, and those milkshakes, keep people coming back again and again.
Brent’s Drugs is a similar, much-loved hometown spot in Jackson, Mississippi, that opened in 1946.
“After the pharmacy left about 10 years ago,” explains General Manager Sarah Friedler, “the soda fountain had been such a part the community’s history that a group of partners got together and said, ‘We can’t let this go.’ So, they bought it and kept the soda fountain and restaurant.”
Brent’s has a strong customer base that comes for the burgers, its signature egg-and-olive-salad sandwich, and the milkshakes.
“What makes a great milkshake is its thickness,” says Friedler. “That’s very important. We like to be innovative, but we don’t put too many things in a milkshake. We may have a banana Nutella shake, but it’s not going to have more than the bananas, the Nutella, and the vanilla ice cream. We also make fresh whipped cream every day.”
To keep things interesting, Brent’s does specialty shakes every month. For Mardi Gras there’s a King Cake Shake, when Girl Scouts are selling cookies there’s a Thin Mint Shake, at Easter look for a Cadbury Shake, and so on.
And while shakes are definitely a big draw, people also come in for malts.
“People ask me the difference between a malt and a shake all the time and it’s hard to explain. It’s a powder and it’s what’s in a malted milk ball like a Whopper. So, it’s a bit thicker and creamier and has kind of that malt ball taste.”
If Brent’s looks familiar, scenes from the movie “The Help” were shot here. The film made use of the period furniture and booths that have remained through the years.
Tommy Flinn owns Velvet Cream, also known as The Dip in Hernando, Mississippi. It’s been around since 1947. He began working there as an 11-year old boy in the late 1960s. His son, daughter, nieces and nephews, and even his parents, now in their 80s, still help with the family run business.
“We’re here because of the car culture basically established after World War II,” Flinn says. “It was where everybody would get in their car and come get a milkshake, because they could ride around and drink them. It was made for drive-thru, driving around, and just sitting around and talking.”
Those milkshakes still draw crowds today.
“We do a very creamy milkshake which is made from 10 percent butter fat. We use the mix that we make our ice cream with to make our milkshakes, so it’s really creamy.”
They’re served with huge straws and come in all kinds of flavors.
“We do whatever flavor you want. We can combine anything with anything. If you like cherry with pecans or with chocolate ice cream and sprinkles, we can absolutely do that. ”
While older restaurants that have served milkshakes for years are still bringing in customers, so are many new ones.
The Yard Milkshake Bar opened its first location in Gulf Shores, Alabama, two years ago and has since opened others in Panama City Beach, Florida; Fairhope, Alabama; and D’Iberville, Mississippi.
Chelsea Green owns the business with her husband, Logan, and says she had an ice cream shop in Gulf Shores and wanted to open a second location that didn’t compete with the existing store, so they decided to do milkshakes instead of ice cream.
“We wanted to do something different, so we decided to do crazy milkshakes,” she says. “And we got the name from the song that says, ‘My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.’”
Each milkshake comes with a souvenir jar and many different toppings.
“They come with a ton of toppings and syrups,” says Green. “We have things like chunks of cheesecake or brownies, cookie dough sandwiches, and we add stuff on top. You can choose from shakes we already have predesigned or you can build your own if you like and make your milkshake exactly like you want it.”
She says people love the variety, the way the shakes look and have a lot of fun posting photos on social media.
Lokalani Alabanza, who created the Unicorn Shake at Hattie Jane’s Creamery in Columbia, Tennessee, says milkshakes tend to make people happy and often spark memories. She says there’s nothing better than watching both kids and adults enjoy her special concoction of ice cream, cereal, marshmallows, sprinkles, French macarons, whipped cream, cotton candy, and a waffle cone.
“It’s true. It makes people happy; they get excited. And the biggest compliment I can get is when someone says I remember that; I didn’t think I’d have that flavor again or it reminded me of this. That means a lot.”
The Milk Dessert Bar in Memphis just celebrated its first anniversary. It, too, has enjoyed the recent wave of people who like crafting their own shakes and desserts. Madison Kolonis, the director of marketing, says the key to a great milkshake is striking the right balance.
“I think it’s your ratio. You’ve got to have the perfect amount of each ingredient. We’ve got basic shakes with any ice cream flavor, whipped cream, and a cherry on top, and most adults usually get those. Then the kids’ eyes get big when they look at the menu and see all of our funky shakes.”
She believes the popularity of milkshakes has a lot to with bringing people together.
“I think it kind of allows even adults to feel that joy of being a little kid again and going to soda fountains with their parents when they were kids, and now bringing their own kids to experienc