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The Dirty Shirley Is Bad. Try These Cocktail Recipe Spins Instead

The 'drink of the summer' never really took off. I made two versions of the Dirty Shirley that don't suck.

David Watsky Senior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's spent more than a decade covering all things edible, including meal kit services, food subscriptions, kitchen tools and cooking tips. Before, during and after earning his BA from Northeastern, he toiled in nearly every aspect of the food business, including as a line cook in Rhode Island where he once made a steak sandwich for Lamar Odom. Right now he's likely somewhere stress-testing a blender or tinkering with a toaster. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
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David Watsky
3 min read
cocktail on table with cherry soda can

I think we can all do better than a spiked Shirley Temple.

David Watsky/CNET

The Dirty Shirley is about as simple as cocktails get. Now, we love an easy drink recipe (looking at you, Aperol Spritz) but not if it doesn't taste good, and this spiked version of a Shirley Temple is too sweet -- and a little basic. With summer dwindling down to the final few weeks, we're out to salvage this summer sipper with a couple of spins on the "drink of the summer" with some recipe spins that don't suck.

What is a Dirty Shirley?

Some have dubbed this adult version of the classic kid's drink the sip of the summer, but certainly not me. To turn a Shirley Temple (Sprite and grenadine cherry syrup) dirty, you'll simply spike it with booze such as vodka or rum. Earlier in the year the Dirty Shirley seemed poised to go viral, much like the whipped lemonades and Aperol Spritzes of seasons past. But the Dirty Shirley is cloyingly sweet and has almost no nuance.

The good news is that the base flavors aren't bad. With a little tinkering, I've come up with a few recipe spins on the Dirty Shirley that are refreshing, balanced and will help ease you through the rest of summer. 

@alexa99 "Surely there's drink of the summer?" Yes there is, and don't call me Shirley. #dirtyshirley #cocktail #drinkofthesummer #cocktails #vodka #alexa99 #drinks #drink #cocktailtok ♬ Aesthetic - Tollan Kim

Diet Dirty Shirley

The first and most obvious edit to the original was to sub in Diet Sprite. I tried this, but I'm just not an aspartame person, so the "Diet Dirty Shirley" went straight into the dud bucket, as I predicted it might. 

Soda water to the rescue?

Next, I tried half Sprite and half soda water with a splash of cherry syrup. This was less sweet, of course, and a bit better but still boring and not something I'd care to have more than a few sips of.

Finally, I called in the big guns in the form of two excellent alt soda brands that recently splashed into the market. Olipop and United Sodas of America make less sweet, gussied-up and mostly natural versions of classic sodas. While neither offers a lemon-lime flavor, Olipop makes a Lemon-Ginger tonic ($38 for a 12-pack) and United Sodas, a Cherry Pop ($35 for a 12-pack). 

I've tasted both before and figured one or both might result in something better.

Dirty Shirley recipe spin No. 1

For the first Dirty Shirley, I called on the Olipop Lemon Ginger tonic which has just 30 calories (a can of Sprite has 140) and 2 grams of sugar, thanks to a cassava-based sweetener. 

I filled a cocktail glass with crushed ice, added an ounce of vodka, and then filled the glass the rest of the way with lemon-ginger soda. Instead of grenadine, which is mostly corn syrup, I dropped in a teaspoon of juice from a jar of Filthy Italian Amerena-soaked cherries ($20 on Amazon) and gave it a stir.

cocktail on table with soda can and jar of cherries

A few tweaks and this summer's viral drink gets a serious lift. 

David Watsky/CNET

This was leaps and bounds better than the basic Dirty Shirley. There was citrus, cherry from the juice and a dazzling pop of ginger. I tried the same recipe with whiskey (also outstanding) and tequila (good, but not as good as the first two).

Dirty Shirley recipe spin No. 2

The second Dirty Shirley iteration uses United States of Soda's Cherry Pop. Because the soda was already cherry-flavored, I needed to infuse the drink with lemon and lime. 

As before, I filled a glass with ice, an ounce of vodka and the cherry soda. Next, I added the juice from one wedge of lime and one wedge of lemon. This drink turned out excellent as well and another stark improvement over the original. Without the ginger, this version tastes more like a classic Shirley Temple but less sweet and with no cloying artificial flavors.

cocktail and cherry soda can
David Watsky/CNET

While the Dirty Shirley may have captured the attention of thirsty social media scrollers and cocktail bloggers alike, I think we can certainly do better, and these recipes prove it. 

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