My Longtime Crush on the Crush Cocktail
This Mid-Atlantic beach favorite has endured and evolved for the past 40 years.
Everyone remembers their first crush. The line that could begin any cheesy rom-com screenplay can also be applied to my favorite beach drink. Ostensibly, it’s just four ingredients—vodka, fresh juice, triple sec, and soda—but the legacy of the Orange and Grapefruit Crush has endured and evolved over the past four decades.
With a lore that varies on who you talk to and spin-offs in the form of seltzers, craft beers, and fancy cocktails, the unassuming Crush has gained a following all its own. And practically anyone who grew up on the Mid-Atlantic coast remembers their first.
“My first Orange Crush was my 21st birthday at The Starboard in Dewey Beach,” says Kayla Redmon, the marketing manager at Harpoon Hanna’s on Fenwick Island in Delaware. “I was psyched because I was born and raised here and it’s a Delmarva tradition.”
For me, it was in a plastic cup at Macky’s on the bayside in Ocean City, Maryland. I remember thinking they called it a Crush because of the texture of the ice, only later learning it was named after how bartenders physically crushed fruit halves in a juicer behind the bar. (Some people theorize that the name refers to how easy it is to drink.)
“I was in my early 20s at the beach,” remembers Brendan Dorr, co-owner of Baltimore cocktail bar Dutch Courage. “To be honest, I might not have been able to drink legally, but I was definitely having one.”
Michael Strawley, co-owner of The Bearded Clam in Ocean City, has similar underage memories. “I’ve been making Orange Crushes since I was 19,” he says. “I’m 53 now and teach my kids how to make the fresh-squeezed orange juice—just the juice.”
Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear different stories about its origins. Harborside Bar & Grill in West Ocean City has done a great job of marketing the drink and say it has been “home of the original” since 1995. But many locals point to Strawley’s dive bar, The Bearded Clam, which has been in his family for generations.
As the story goes, his grandfather owned a bar in Cape May, New Jersey, called Tarpon Tavern. When he passed away, the family moved down to Ocean City, bringing the legendary drink with them when they opened in 1978.
“We’ve just called them squeezer drinks forever,” he says. “My parents brought the juicers from the ’60s with them when they moved and those things don’t break. The boys from Harborside used to come and drink fresh-squeezed drinks here and they knew it was good. Then they just pretty much marketed the Orange Crush from there.”
Regardless of who came up with what first, most bartenders can agree on the criteria that sets a Crush apart from a Screwdriver or a Greyhound: fresh-squeezed juice where the fruit is generally crushed to order, flavored vodka for an extra boost, a triple sec sweetener, and just a splash of whatever lemon-lime soda you have on hand.
“To truly be a Crush, you’ll never see a bottle or a carton of juice lying around,” says Redmon, who is also a former bartender. “After you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can probably juice a case of oranges in about 20 minutes. The crank is on the right, so your left bicep always lacks a little.”
Strawley says that that process is part of the appeal. He’ll have customers sit right by his bar’s Hamilton Beach juicer, maybe even occasionally getting some residual splash, and always eventually order one out of curiosity.
“Any time you see someone who makes something manually or makes a bit of a show—a little fire in the kitchen or something loudly sizzling as it goes by—you want that,” he says.
For me, and many people, it just tastes like the beach. Redmon equates it to salt water taffy or your favorite boardwalk pizzeria. I remember when a friend dragged a citrus juicer out to a football tailgate and, even though I was nowhere near the coast, the first sip of that Orange Crush felt like vacation.
But times and tastes evolve. Now some people order a “Skinny Crush” with club soda instead of Sprite. Personally, I’ve gravitated away from sweet orange juice and over to grapefruit with its bitter undertones. Some places will do a 50/50 combination, if you ask nicely.
“I remember when I first had grapefruit, I liked it so much better,” Dorr says. “It was less candy-like and much more appealing to me. As you get older, bitter flavors become more enjoyable.”
In fact, Dorr has made his own elevated spin on the classic drink, which debuted at Dutch Courage last summer. The mix of blood orange gin, dry curaçao, and orange isn’t traditional by any means, but still gave his customers that feeling of summer in a glass.
There have been other offshoots of the classic, with Starboard creating the canned Dewey Crush seltzer in orange, watermelon, and grapefruit varieties. And Cape May Brewing (yes, the same town where Strawley’s family bar started) came out with the Crushin’ It beer in 2018.
“We know that the Orange Crush originated in Ocean City, but somewhere along the way, it migrated over the Delaware Bay and you can find a slew of different Crush varieties at Jersey Shore bars,” says Brian Hink, Cape May Brewing’s speciality brewing manager, who came up with the recipe for the beer. “Every time we did a drop in the tasting room, it sold out in a day. So we knew we had a monster on our hands.”
Just like its inspiration, the 8% ABV beer uses a ton of real orange juice and has a bit of a bite, reminiscent of a vodka cocktail. The beer has been such a hit that the brewery has expanded the line the past few years, adding Grapefruit, Blueberry-Lemon, Mango, and Orange-Vanilla varieties. Hink says that, despite its overwhelming popularity, he still gets Crush purists telling the brewery what they could have done differently.
That’s the thing about a cult following, which the Crush has certainly gained over the years. Your highly dedicated fans will remain loyal—even as their favorite thing evolves, gets duplicated, and outgrows itself.
“My dad passed away almost five years ago and he would always say, ‘Nothing in the bar business is original,’” Strawley says. “This drink is older than me and people still come in every day, bring their friends, and say you gotta try this Orange Crush.”
Orange Crush Recipe from The Bearded Clam
- 2 ounces Three Olives Orange Vodka
- ¾ ounce Triple Sec
- Splash of Sprite
- Fresh-squeezed juice from one orange
Combine all ingredients and serve over ice.
Grapefruit Crush Recipe from Harpoon Hanna’s
- 1½ ounces Smirnoff Ruby Red Grapefruit Vodka
- ½ ounce Triple Sec
- Juice of one grapefruit
- Splash of Mist Twist
Combine all ingredients and serve over ice.
Summer Lovin’ from Dutch Courage
- 1½ ounces Malfy con Arancia Gin (blood orange)
- ¼ ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
- 1 ounce orange
- ½ ounce Thai basil
- Soda to top
Build into a pebble-ice-filled highball, top with soda, and stir gently to mix. Garnish with a Thai basil sprig.