An ice cream float or soda (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa and East Asia), coke float (United Kingdom), root beer float (United States, Canada) or spider (Australia and New Zealand), is a beverage that consists of ice cream in either a soft drink or in a mixture of flavoured syrup and carbonated water.
The ice cream float was invented by Robert McCay Green in Philadelphia, PA, in 1874 during the sesquicentennial celebration. The traditional story is that, on a particularly hot day, Mr. Green ran out of cold ice for the flavoured drinks he was selling and used vanilla ice cream from a neighbouring vendor, thus inventing a new drink.
His own account, published in Soda Fountain magazine in 1910, states that while operating a soda fountain at the Franklin Institute’s semi-centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1874, he wanted to create a new treat to attract customers away from another vendor who had a fancier, bigger soda fountain. After some experimenting, he decided to combine ice cream and soda water. During the celebration, he sold vanilla ice cream with soda water and a choice of 16 different flavoured syrups. The new treat was a sensation and soon other soda fountains began selling ice cream floats. Green’s will instructed that “Originator of the Ice Cream Soda” was to be engraved on his tombstone.
There are at least three other claimants for the invention of ice cream float: Fred Sanders, Philip Mohr, and George Guy, one of Robert Green’s own employees. Guy is said to have absentmindedly mixed ice cream and soda in 1872, much to his customer’s delight.
Regardless of its origins, the beverage quickly became very popular, to such a degree that it was almost socially obligatory among teens, although many adults did not like it. According to some accounts, it was banned, either entirely or on holy days, by some local governments, giving rise to a substitute treat, the soda-less ice cream sundae. As carbonated drinks were marketed as a miracle cure, they were often considered a substance that required oversight and control like alcohol, another controlled substance that could not be served or purchased on Sundays in many conservative areas. Many soda fountains had to figure out a way to turn a profit on Sundays when selling their product was considered illegal. The solution was to serve ice cream on these days, as it is merely a food product and not a controlled substance. Soda fountains then coined the term “Sundaes” for the ice cream concoctions that they served on “soda’s day of rest”.
In Australia and New Zealand, an ice cream float is known as a “spider” because once the fizzy hits the ice cream it forms a spider web like reaction.
In the UK and Ireland, it is usually referred to as an “ice-cream float” or simply a “float“, as “coke” is often used generically to refer to any cola in the United Kingdom, and “soda” is usually taken to mean soda water, sweetened carbonated drinks instead being collectively called “soft drinks” or “(fizzy) pop”.
In Mexico, it is known as “Helado flotante” or “flotante“.
In El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Colombia it’s called Vaca Negra (Black Cow), while in Puerto Rico is referred to as a “Black Out“.
In the United States, an “ice cream soda” typically refers to the drink containing soda water, syrup, and ice cream, whereas a “float” is generally ice cream in a soft drink (usually root beer).
Variations of ice cream floats are as countless as the varieties of drinks and the flavours of ice cream, but some have become more prominent than others. Some of the most popular are described below:
Peach Ice Cream Soda
A delicious combination of poached fresh peaches, Bunderburg peach sparkling drink, vanilla ice cream, all sprinkled with crumbed digestive biscuits. See recipe.
Chocolate Ice Cream Soda
This ice cream soda starts with approximately 1 oz of chocolate syrup, then several scoops of chocolate ice cream in a tall glass. Unflavoured carbonated water is added until the glass is filled and the resulting foam rises above the top of the glass. The final touch is a topping of whipped cream and usually, a maraschino cherry.
A similar soda made with chocolate syrup but vanilla ice cream is sometimes called a “black and white” ice cream soda.
Root Beer Float
Also known as a “black cow” or “brown cow”, the root beer float is traditionally made with vanilla ice cream and root beer, but can also be made with other flavours.
In the United States and Canada, the chain A&W Restaurants are well known for their root beer floats. The definition of a black cow varies by region. For instance in some localities, a “root beer float” has strictly vanilla ice cream; a float made with root beer and chocolate ice cream is a “chocolate cow” or a “brown cow.” In some places a “black cow” or a “brown cow” was made with cola instead of root beer. In some areas, for example, Northeastern Wisconsin, “black cow” is said to mean a root beer float where the ice cream and root beer have been mixed together.
In 2008, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group introduced its Float beverage line. This includes A&W Root Beer, A&W Cream Soda and Sunkist flavours which attempt to simulate the taste of their respective ice cream float flavours in a creamy, bottled drink.
A coke float can be made with Coca-Cola and Chocolate ice-cream.
A Boston Cooler or Vernor’s float is typically composed of Vernors ginger ale and vanilla ice cream.
The origin of the term “Boston Cooler” lies in Detroit, Michigan, the city in which Fred Sanders is credited with inventing the ice cream soda. The name is a mystery, having no apparent connection to Boston, Massachusetts, where the beverage is virtually unknown. One theory suggests that it was named after Detroit’s Boston Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of what was then, according to the theory, an upper-class neighbourhood a short distance from James Vernor’s drugstore. Boston Boulevard, however, did not exist at the time. The streets and subdivision that became the Boston-Edison neighbourhood, approximately five miles from Vernor’s drugstore, were not platted nor incorporated into the city until 1891, and its first homes not constructed until 1905, nine years after Vernor closed his drugstore.
It is known that by the 1880s the Boston Cooler was being served in Detroit, made with the local Vernors. Originally, a drink called a Vernors Cream was served as a shot or two of sweet cream poured into a glass of Vernors. Later, vanilla ice cream was substituted for the cream to make a Vernors float. Unlike a float, however, a Boston Cooler is blended like a thick milkshake. Both Sanders soda fountains and Michigan-based Big Boy restaurants (which had Boston Coolers as a signature item until the Elias Brothers sold their franchise to new ownership in the 1980s) used their milkshake blenders to prepare the drink.
It can be found most often in the Detroit region’s many Coney Island-style restaurants, which are plentiful because of Detroit’s Greektown district influence. National Coney Island is one of the few restaurant chains to list the Boston Cooler in its menu. The Kerby’s Koney Island chain lists a Boston Cooler on its menus, but that variant is actually a Vernors float, as the ice cream is not blended. It is also found at the Detroit-area Dairy Queens and at Halo Burger, a Flint, Michigan based fast food chain.
A Boston Cooler is also available on the menu at the Chow Food Bar in San Francisco.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park serves “Butterbeer”, a cream soda and butterscotch concoction with a creamy foam topping.
A Snow White is made with 7 Up or Sprite and vanilla ice cream. The origin of this variation is unknown, but it is found in some Asian eateries.
In the context of ice cream soda, a purple cow is vanilla ice cream in purple grape soda. The Purple Cow, a restaurant chain in the southern United States, features this and similar beverages. In a more general context, a purple cow may refer to a non-carbonated grape juice and vanilla ice cream combination.
The Friendly’s chain also had a variation known as a “sherbet cooler,” which was a combination of orange or watermelon sherbet, vanilla syrup and seltzer water. (At present, it is billed as a “slammer”.)
At least in Brazil and Portugal, a non-alcoholic ice cream soda made by combining vanilla ice cream and coca-cola is known as Vaca Preta (“black cow”).
In Brazil, a vaca dourada or golden cow is an ice cream soda combination of vanilla ice cream and guaraná soda.
In Mexico the most popular version is made with coke and lemon sherbet.
Orange Float (or Orange Whip)
An orange float consists of vanilla ice cream and orange soft drinks.
Beer Float (aka Shakin’ Jesse)
Guinness Stout, Chocolate ice cream, and espresso. Although the Shakin’ Jesse version is blended into more of a milkshake consistency, most restaurant bars can make the beer float version. When making at home, the beer and espresso should be very cold so as to not melt the ice cream.
A flavour popular in New Orleans and parts of Ohio, made with a syrup consisting of equal parts almond and vanilla syrups mixed with sweetened condensed milk and a touch of red food colouring to produce a pink, opalescent syrup base for the soda.