A scoop or two of vanilla ice cream. A long pour of Coca-Cola. That’s the basic recipe for a beloved drink that has been around for more than a century.

But now chefs across the country are taking the ice cream float to a whole new level. Using Coke and ice cream as a base, they are experimenting with flavors and ingredients like bacon, fresh mint, and aromatic bitters, and serving the humble drink as a cutting-edge dessert or cocktail.

Umami Burger, a California-based chain of upscale burger restaurants, features a breakfast float of Coke, Grape Nuts cereal and a scoop of Kahlua-infused vanilla ice cream on its menu. At Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort, the California Grill serves a dessert trio of a Coke float, strawberry sundae and caramel corn sundae – it is pastry chef Jeff Barnes’s favorite menu item. And at Sadie Kitchen & Lounge in Los Angeles, a Coke float with a scoop of Fernet-and-mint chip ice cream is a popular dessert drink.

The Fernet drink is something that came together organically, said Sadie’s director of spirits Giovanni Martinez. He was experimenting with new ice cream flavors when he came up with a blend of dark chocolate, fresh mint from the restaurant’s herb garden, and Fernet Branca, a bitter Italian liqueur. Once the taste satisfied him, it was a “no-brainer” to add Mexican coke and feature it as a dessert drink, he said. Mexican Coke isn’t necessary, but it adds to “the wonderful mystique” of the drink, Martinez noted.

Sweet and Savory

Chefs are also experimenting with a savory side of the ice cream treat. At Brookville Restaurant in Charlottesville, Va., chef Harrison Keevil serves a bacon ice cream and Coke float for dessert (get the recipe). Keevil admits that it’s an unusual combination, but he enjoys watching diners who order it as a novelty, then are surprised at how much they like it.

“They think it’s not going to be good – they’re just getting it to try it – then end up really enjoying it and drinking the whole thing,” he says. For a grown-up twist, he offers an optional shot of local Virginia whiskey with “smoky and vanilla qualities” that play off the sweet and savory tastes.

These bold new recipes don’t mean the simple ice cream float will disappear anytime soon, however. The concept reportedly originated in Philadelphia on a hot day in 1874, when a soda fountain vendor ran out of ice for his flavored sodas and decided to keep them cold with vanilla ice cream.

Coke float advertising
 The classic Coke float likely followed soon after the drink became available at soda fountains, Coke archivist Ted Ryan noted.

“Many of the early soda fountains also sold ice cream – it was just the way it worked,” he explained. “The mixing of the two probably occurred pretty early in our history.”

The company started advertising Coke floats in earnest in the 1960s, Ryan said.

Some print ads featured close-up shots of a glass of Coke topped by a scoop of ice cream and a straw with the words: “A Float with Coke.” A 1960 TV ad shows TV star Ricky Nelson lifting the drink and telling the camera: “Add ice cream to an ice-cold glass of Coca-Cola, and you’ve got the greatest invention since eating and drinking – a float with Coke.” Another TV ad featured a voiceover calling it “just about the zingiest drink sipped through a straw.”

Martinez, creator of the Fernet-and-mint chip Coke float, recalls hitting a hangout called Uncle Henry’s Soda Shop in his Southern California neighborhood for Coke floats as a kid.

“It was definitely a treat,” he said. “It still is.”

Get the Recipe for Harrison Keevil's Bacon Ice Cream and Coke Float.