Just as fall marks the return of the pumpkin spice latte and winter the arrival of peppermint hot cocoa, every spring can be counted on to mark the homecoming of the Shamrock Shake—a creamy, green milkshake that has fascinated consumers ever since it hit select menus in 1970.
St. Patrick’s Day may be the third most popular drinking day in America, but green beer isn’t the only thing on the menu. An invention the famous global burger chain McDonald’s, the Shamrock Shake has become a coveted St. Patrick’s Day tradition. Ahead of the coming holiday, we’re exploring the origins and persisting success of this sweet treat.
Wait—Why Is It Green?
Before we delve into any Shamrock Shake lore, it might be helpful to know how the color green became associated with Ireland—let alone milkshakes!
In the 17th century, the color green became a symbol of unity for the Irish people in their struggle against oppressive English rule. It was particularly important as a distinguisher between Catholics and Protestants in the country, where Catholics were represented in green and Protestants in orange.
Of course, today Ireland’s flag proudly flies with green and orange colors, a stripe of white between the two to symbolize peace. Every March 17th, Irish people around the world celebrate St. Patrick, the foremost patron saint of Ireland, for driving snakes off of the island—though this is really just an allegory for how he converted many Irish people to Christianity.
Over time, St. Patrick’s Day has taken on new meaning as the way the holiday is celebrated has also evolved. Although the ritual of enjoying green drinks like the Shamrock Shake is a relatively recent one, it showcases how brands can innovate their products to create new traditions for consumers while also boosting sales and creating buzz.
The Shamrock Shake is a perfect example of that feat—but where did it come from? And why does it continue to be so popular today?
The First Shamrock Shake
Early Shamrock Shakes wouldn’t be recognizable to the modern consumer. The celebrated drink got its start as the “St. Patrick’s Day Green Milkshake,” created in 1967 by Connecticut McDonald’s owner and operator, Hal Rosen.
It wasn’t until three years later in 1970 that corporate made the decision to debut the “Shamrock Shake” in select locations across the US. The original recipe involved a combination of lemon-lime sherbet, vanilla ice cream, and vanilla syrup, dyed green for the occasion. You might be scratching your head as you compare this to your own tasting notes—and you wouldn’t be the only one!
The Shamrock Shake saw several evolutions before becoming the creation we enjoy today. In 1973 the recipe was switched to a plain vanilla shake, dyed green, and in 1983, mint syrup was finally added to the mix. Of course, consumers still continue to debate the true flavor of the Shamrock Shake, but that’s part of the fun.
The Shamrock Shake Goes National
Before 2011, the Shamrock Shake was only available in about half of all McDonald’s restaurants. Instead of relying on luck to hunt down the coveted treat, fans created a website to track which restaurant locations were serving it on the menu.
By that point, it was clear that the drink had built up enough of a cult following to warrant going national in 2012. When the Shamrock Shake was finally released nationwide, it received another update—the addition of whipped cream and a Maraschino cherry.
Later years saw even more iterations of the drink, one of which can be credited to the fans who created the “menu-hack” item. The “McLeprechaun Shake,” a half chocolate, half mint shake was added to the official menu in 2017 as the “Chocolate Shamrock Shake.” Along with the limited time recipe, McDonald’s partnered with a team of aerospace and robotics engineers to design a special, limited-edition straw to allow consumers to get the perfect sip of the Franken-version of the shake. Only 2,000 units of the J-shaped straw were distributed across 80 cities—so if you got one, you were lucky!
The company further expanded its Shamrock Shake collection that same year by introducing Frappe, Hot Chocolate, and Mocha recipes—all flavor profiles that combined effortlessly with the signature Shamrock-branded mint syrup.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Shamrock Shake, McDonald’s added yet another iteration to the menu—the Oreo Shamrock McFlurry, essentially a thicker, blizzard-style concoction with Oreo cookie bits swirled in.
But McDonald’s isn’t the only one churning out dyed green treats. Consumers inspired by the seasonal appeal of the beverage have taken to their kitchens to whip up with their own versions of the Shamrock Shake—from straight copycats to keto adaptions to adults-only recipes.
Shaking Up For A Good Cause
There’s more to the story of the Shamrock Shake than its dizzying flavor evolution and some green dye. You might be surprised to learn that the beverage has its roots in a great cause—and one that the company maintains to this day.
In 1974, Philadelphia Eagles’ player Fred Hill’s daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. He and his family stayed nearby while she was received treatment by sleeping in waiting rooms and cots throughout the hospital. There, Fred noticed other families doing the same. These were families who had traveled long distances for their children’s treatment and who could not afford alternative accommodations, so Fred and his teammates got to work.
Jim Murray, the team’s general manager, called in a favor from a friend who happened to be employed at McDonald’s. He suggested they combine their efforts to raise money for the cause. With their St. Patrick’s Day event around the corner, the Shamrock Shake—green like the team’s uniforms—became the key to the fundraiser. 25 cents of each shake sold went towards the purchase of a four-story house, renovated to host families of sick children being treated at the hospital. It became the first Ronald McDonald House.
Since then, a portion of each Shamrock Shake sold has gone to Ronald McDonald House Charities® which continues to keep millions of families with sick children near the care and resources they need all over the world through a network of local Chapters and over 1,000 core programs.
It just goes to show how a great beverage can change what the world is drinking—and maybe even change the world!
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