Irish-American Dining: Shamrock Shake

The Shamrock Shake: A St. Paddy’s beverage with a surprising tragedy in its past.

You don’t expect to research the Shamrock Shake and discover a tragedy, and I won’t dwell on it, but neither do I think it should be stricken from the history books. There is a well-known origin to the mint-flavored mikshake served by McDonald’s during St. Patrick’s Day, and it is as follows:

The shake began as part of a charitable event intended to raise money for the first Ronald McDonald House, which happened to fall around the same time as St. Patrick’s Day in 1970. It was originally developed by a Chicago advertising firm, Rogers Merchandising, and was reportedly based on a family recipe by the firm’s executive artist, James Byrne. For years afterward, a portion of the profits from the shakes went to the charity.

But here’s the tragedy: In December of 1975, somebody broke into a penthouse in Chicago, whereupon three men were tied up and beaten with a hammer, immediately killing two of them. One of these was James Byrne. The Chicago Tribune from December 4, 1975, reported speculation that there had been a fair amount of cash in the penthouse, and that may have been what the murderer was after. Byrne was discovered by his partner at Rogers Merchandising, Charles Strasser, according to UPI, who became alarmed when Byrne did not report for work. He went to the penthouse, heard moaning, and had a building engineer let him in. “They were beaten beyond recognition,” a witness told the press. “There was blood all over the place.”

The survivor of the attack, Raymond T. Kumorek, told police they had answered the door and were met by a well-dressed man brandishing a pistol, who robbed the three men of $300 and a quantity of hashish, bound them, and then beat them savagely when he couldn’t find a larger stash of cash.

And that’s as much as I can tell you. I don’t know whether the murderer was ever apprehended. I have not been able to find any follow-up stories about the case. I can tell you that Byrne’s invention, the Shamrock Shake, is part of an ongoing charity program on the part of McDonald’s franchises that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Ronald McDonald House — a total of $565,000 from Bay Area restaurants alone in 2012. So while Byrne’s life ended with tragedy, his legacy is considerable.

So let us discuss the shake itself. Byrne said it was from a family recipe, and, indeed, Shamrock Shakes have been around forever, although the earliest version I could locate was alcoholic. The 1901  National Labor Tribune from Pittsburgh, PA, offers this recipe:

“The Shamrock Shake” consists of a well-iced blending of the following ingredients. Juice of one lemon, half pound of loaf sugar, three cups of Lipton tea (strong), one quart of Lipton scotch whisky, one quart of American champagne, one whisky glass of Maraschino, one of curacao, one of green chartreuse, one pint of brandy, one pint of sherry. Garnish with sliced banana, pineapple and orange, and served in small sherry glasses. Named in honor of Sir Thomas Lipton of yacht fame.

To clarify this, Lipton was the man who created Lipton tea, and was an avid yacht racer. He was also of Irish extraction, in the sense that he was an Ulster Scot, and so had applied the name Shamrock to a series of yachts used in the America’s Cup.

Mint milkshakes also predate the Shamrock Shake, although the earliest I can find is from 1940, when Fred Meyer (“For Thrifty Buyers!”) published a mint-scented ad in the Oregonian offering “Delicious creamy Peppermint Milk Shake,” a malt made with peppermint candy flavoring.

Uncle O’Grimacey: In fairness, some Irish people actually do look like this.

But it seems like it wasn’t until McDonald’s introduced their Shamrock Shake that this was associated with St. Patrick’s Day. McDonald’s went out of their way to make it as Irish as possible, too, including introducing an uncle to their McDonaldland character Grimace, named Uncle O’Grimacey. He was green, carried a shillelagh, and dressed in a green capotain top hat and green vest decorated with shamrocks. He didn’t last very long as a mascot, but he did rather suggest that Grimace himself was Irish-American.

There is a copycat recipe for McDonald’s Shamrock Shake available online, but it is so preposterously simple that I can’t imagine it truly replicates the McDonald’s recipe. Its ingredients are as follows:

2 cups vanilla ice cream
1 1/4 cups low fat milk
1/4 teaspoon mint extract
8 drops green food coloring

Instructions? Just blend it all together.

Now, the McDonald’s recipe includes guar gum, carrageenan, and disodium phosphate, so if you make the copycat recipe, you’re going to miss all those additives — carrageenan in particular is extracted from seaweed, which feels very Irish in its own way, as Ireland is a county where people snack on seaweed in bars. In fact, if you were to make your own, I would recommend adding some Irish moss, which will thicken and bind the milkshake. Use about 1/2 oz of the stuff , soak it, and blend it until it’s creamy.

I’d also swap out the mint extract, were I to make it myself. Instead, I’d mix milk and chopped mint leaves, and sugar in a saucepan, simmer, and let them cool, and then strain the results into a bowl. I’d also probably add some whole mint leaves before I mixed it all in a blender. And for coloring?

Well, I’d probably use creme de menthe. The Shamrock Shake started off alcoholic, it should probably return to that, especially when drunk on St. Paddy’s. If you make it yourself, though, I would suggest also sending in a donation to the Ronald McDonald House, and send it in the memory of James Byrne.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.