The Blue Heaven milk shake is an all-Australian invention, but its origins are unknown. What we do know is that the artificial colour known as Brilliant Blue FCF (133) was first made in 1929 and subsequently approved for use in foods. Mixed with vanilla and raspberry flavours, and sugar, it became the basis of an Australian favourite.
Of course the milk shake itself has a much longer history. It popped up first in America in around 1885 and by 1888 had taken the country by storm. In 1886, Atlanta tried to claim bragging rights. An article in the Vicksburg Evening Post told the story:
The newest Atlanta drink is “milk shake”. You get it at the soda fountain. The mixer of cooling beverages pours out a glass of sweet milk, puts in a spoonful of crushed ice, puts in a mixture of unknown ingredients, draws a bit of any desired sirop, shakes the milk in a tin can, like a bar keeper mixes lemonade, sprinkles a little nutmeg on the foaming milk until it looks something like a Tom and Jerry, sets it out for you and you pay 5 cents. “Milk shake” is an Atlanta drink. Atlanta is nothing if not original. – (Atlanta Constitution.) It is the “unknown ingredient” the pious customer must wink for when he asks for a milk shake at a soda fountain.
The need to wink suggests that alcohol may have been the unknown ingredient and indeed many histories of the milk shake say that it was, originally, laced with whisky. It wasn’t necessarily so. An advertisement in the Boseman (Montana) Weekly Chronicle proclaimed in 1888 that “Milk Shake is a strictly temperance drink. Fresh, pure milk, simple syrups and fruit extracts, with or without phosphate.”
It didn’t take long for the new sensation to migrate to Australia. In 1888, the cargo of the John R. Worcester, arriving from San Francisco, included 64 boxes of milk shake machines. Sixty-four boxes! Were they simple shakers or hand-cranked mechanical devices? We’ll never know. But by 1891 entrepreneurial locals were advertising milk shakes.
Playing a significant role in the popularisation of American-style drinks were the rapidly proliferating Greek-run cafes. In 1899, well before Mick Adams (aka Joachim Tavlarides) opened what is held to be Australia’s first milk bar, Comino & Panaretto were offering “Raspberry, Strawberry and Pine Apple Milk Shakes” at the Metropolitan Oyster and Refreshment saloon in Moree, New South Wales.
Technology continued to improve. In 1911 the Hamilton-Beach company in the USA developed the Cyclone drink mixer, with its characteristic spindle and metal container. Electricity replaced manual labour to ensure milk shakes came out consistently flavoured and fluffy.
We could speculate that the name of the Blue Heaven milkshake came from a popular song, My Blue Heaven, which was written in 1927 and recorded in 1928 – more or less coinciding with the invention of the luminous blue colouring. However, the evidence is scant. In 1934, cafes in Mackay, Queensland, were offering only chocolate, raspberry, orange, pineapple and strawberry flavoured malted milk drinks.
By this time, however, ice cream was an option. The first person to add ice cream to milk shakes was evidently one “Pop” Coulson from Walgreens in Chicago in 1922. In Mackay in 1934, milk shakes were fourpence – an extra twopence for ice cream. Malted milks were sixpence, with an extra threepence for ice cream. Another option was to add an egg.
My own theory about the origin of Blue Heaven milk shakes is that they may have arisen in the 1950s – a decade that certainly marked the heyday of milk shakes in Australia. In 1951 a film called My Blue Heaven, starring Betty Grable, was hot property at cinemas throughout the land. Could this have inspired a manufacturer to dream up a flavour/colour combination that went on to become an Aussie classic?
It didn’t stop at milk shakes. There is now a Blue Heaven flavour in the Aeroplane Jelly range and a luminous blue soft drink from Slades. Bulla also brought out an ice cream on a stick called Blue Heaven, but proclaimed that it was “packed full of pineapple flavour”. Since the colour and the flavours used are separate things, in practice the flavour can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Vanilla seems to be a constant underlying note though.
Blue Heaven has cropped up as the name for other things too. There’s a Blue Heaven cocktail, for example, which contains blue curacao, amaretto, rum and pineapple juice. It’s also been cited as a street name for LSD and for a barbiturate drug, as well as being a popular colour name for everything from stockings to lingerie to uphostery fabrics. But here in Australia, it will forever be related to milk shakes – the ultimate retro nostalgia drink.