It may sound silly to some people, but ice is probably the most important part of your drink. You are probably thinking sure, ice makes your drink cold, but what’s the big deal? Well, until you understand the multiple roles ice plays in a cocktail you won’t see how important it really is.
What is ice?
It sounds like a stupid question because ice is obviously frozen water, but depending on how it is frozen and the quality of the water, ice will behave differently in your cocktail. In addition, the size and shape of the ice pieces can have a dramatic effect on the dilution rate, cooling efficiency, and the overall aesthetics of the drink.
In any cocktail, you need to realize that the ice is going to shed water into the mixture, so the ice you select will affect the ability to cool the drink as well as how quickly it gets watered down. Here’s a quick rule of thumb: Small ice pieces (such as pea-sized crushed) cool quickly but melt more readily. Large ice pieces (cubes) cool the drink more slowly, but will not melt as fast.
To illustrate this more clearly, if we mixed two cocktails—one with cubes and another with crushed—the cubed ice will chill the drink slowly but the ice may remain intact longer. The crushed ice will chill the drink very quickly, but will dissolve much faster. Fortunately, we speed the cooling process dramatically by shaking or stirring, and since we don’t typically want a watered-down drink, we use larger ice cubes and plenty of them when we mix a cocktail.
That’s not to say crushed ice does not have its place. On the contrary, many recipes specifically call for it in the glass. For example, the Mint Julep is often built in a silver cup over crushed or shaved ice to generate frost on the outside of the cup–and a little dilution for all of that bourbon isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Still, you usually don’t want to shake a drink using crushed ice since most of it would melt before you could strain it out, although some strong tiki cocktails use this technique for rapid chill and dilution.
Why not use one giant chunk?
In Japan, drinking whiskey has become quite popular, however, patrons enjoy sipping the spirit over a long period of time. Bartenders have perfected the art of carving spheres of ice, adding a single ice ball large enough to fill the entire glass. The idea is that a large spherical shape will cool a drink adequately while it’s minimum surface area will melt the slowest, allowing the patron to sip their drink for long periods without it getting watered down. A large sphere served in this manner can easily last two hours!
Water is clear, of course, but I am sure you’ve seen ice that contains wisps or ribbons of white cracks and tiny air bubbles. Completely solid, crystal clear ice can be gorgeous—even sculptural, but if you have cloudy white ice, it does not mean you have dirty water. Sure, there’s minerals and chemicals in our tap water, but there’s also plenty of trapped air. The minerals and the air that is dissolved in our drinking water only begins to appear as as water freezes. The air is forced into bubbles as crystals form and any minerals will fall out of solution. In a typical plastic ice tray, those crystals begin to form from the outside in, creating a cage or “skin” over the top, trapping the minerals and air inside. This leaves you with cloudy, white ice that is more prone to cracking and may not get as cold as a clear, solid cube. You don’t see this as often with bagged ice from the grocery store because they drill out the centers of the “cubes” to eliminate the trapped air and minerals.
How do bars obtain clear ice?
Commercial establishments such as bars and restaurants go through a lot of ice. With such a high demand, they can easily justify the cost of an ice machine, and the best ice machines employ unique methods of clarifying ice. While some machines (even many home refrigerator ice makers) will filter the water to remove minerals, this does not remove the air bubbles. The best commercial machines such as the highly-admired Kold-Draft machines use a technique to freeze the water while it is moving. This swirling effect allows the ice to build up in layers, never trapping any air. It also allows minerals to wash away as the crystals build up, eliminating the need for filtration. Due to the amount of ice that bars and restaurants use, they typically spend a lot of money on ice machines to ensure they have beautiful ice.
Beautiful ice—Should I care?
Many upscale bars a now have diverse “ice programs” in order to build cocktails that sometimes feature ice that enhances the look of the drink at an artistic level. Clear ice is colder, drier, and more beautiful. Solid cubes will melt slower and maintain lower temperatures. Less melting and colder temperatures means your drink is less apt to become watered down and it will chill faster and remain cold longer. Solid cubes are also less likely to crack than cubes that already have fracture lines and air pockets. For many reasons, clear ice is definitely better than cloudy, and combined with unusual molds or carving techniques, a properly-equipped professional can build amazingly cool cocktails. That’s a great thing to look for when out on the town, but, what about making drinks at home?
Ice at home
For starters, the home bartender needs to use appropriate technique. Adding plenty of ice to your mixer before shaking or stirring will minimize dilution and provide plenty of cooling with basic tray cubes. Don’t be shy about filling the glass to the top with ice. The more cubes you use, the faster it will chill the drink as you mix and the less it will melt in the process. Obtaining crushed ice is easy—just wrap a few cubes in a towel and whack them with a frying pan. A better option is to use an inexpensive hand-cranked ice crusher or even the more expensive electric variety. We like the Lewis Bag which is a canvas bag designed to wick away moisture as you crush ice with a mallet. Once you are using the right technique, you may want to start to explore more aesthetic reasons for developing your own personal ice program at home. If you are concerned about the look of your ice, there are many things you can do to make your cocktails more appealing, especially for your guests.
Probably the easiest thing you can do is purchase a few bags of ice from your local supermarket. Bagged ice is convenient, especially when you will have many guests. Now that you are using plenty of it, the last thing you want to happen is the dreaded moment you realize you are out of ice! It may not be the perfect shape for your cocktail, but bagged ice is usually fairly clear, very cold, and will look a bit nicer than moon-shaped ice maker cubes or the trapezoidal cubes that always shatter out of the wrist-wrecker trays.
The next step is to experiment with different cube shapes and sizes. One of our favorites is this silicone tray by Tovolo. It allows you to create perfect cubes that are just the right size for rocks drinks. Even a cloudy cube may be overlooked with the results you get from this tray, and you can pop them out as you need them without the typical stray cube shooting across the room as they always seem to do from twist-type trays. We have also seen some unique ice molds at IKEA, including one that makes long sticks of ice normally used for narrow-mouthed water bottles. These look great in collins glasses!
Now, we know you are wondering—where can I learn to carve ice spheres?—or better yet—where can I get my hands on a mold to make them more easily? Admittedly, the ice spheres are pretty cool. If you have ever been to a bar that serves them with a Negroni or an Old Fashioned, you know how amazing it can be to slowly sip at your drink and enjoy every last drop. Experience has taught us that you really need to dedicate yourself to making them. Most of us don’t want to risk our fingers to carve the ice with knives, so molding spheres is our best option. Fortunately, there are a few possibilities:
The best spheres today are created with the Taisin molds. These ingenious devices are metal castings that compress solid ice blocks under their own weight, and as the two halves of the mold compress, the ice melts away until you are left with a perfect, seamless sphere. You really have to see the video to believe it. The catch is that these molds are very expensive. While it may be a great option for a bar, most home enthusiasts are not going to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on ice molds. Another option is a simple plastic tray that used to be available at the Museum of Modern Art, or many silicone mold options.
Clear without Kold-Draft?
As much as we would love a commercial Kold-Draft ice machine in the house, it’s an expense that’s pretty hard to justify. We may be able to mold ice in various shapes, but what about getting that crystal clear look? Using distilled water would eliminate the minerals. Notice that we am not saying you should use bottled water? Bottled water often has minerals in it, but distilled should be pure H2O. So, what about the air bubbles? Well, You could freeze cubes over time by adding tiny amounts of water, layer upon layer so as not to trap any air in the middle. It sounds tedious, so what some people have tried is boiling their water to drive out the gas but thievish a myth sometimes partially confirmed by better crystallization due to starting out warm, heating the freezer somewhat leading to longer freeze times. Slow freezing let’s bigger crystals form, but they still trap bubbles.
EDIT: At the time of this writing, clear ice innovation was underway, but few products existed. Today, specialty molds from Wintersmiths and others use insulated trays that make use of directional freezing and can achieve clear cubes, and spheres.
If you have read this far, you should really consider yourself an ice expert (and a very patient person). The next time you mix a drink, think about how the ice you are using affects your results. With proper techniques, a few tools, and a little planning, you can achieve professional results that your guests will surely appreciate.