Considering almost all of our home bartending guide articles have mentioned it, it’s probably time we had a talk about ice. After all, pretty much every cocktail uses it in one way or another, and making sure you get the good stuff can be the difference between a subtle, well-balanced drink and a watery mess.
Despite seeming like a pretty simple thing, there’s actually quite a bit you can do to improve the quality of your ice. A lot of snake oil salesmen out there will try to convince you that their five -hundred dollar mold is guaranteed to make professional-grade ice spheres, but as with most things in this business the best methods for making cocktail ice are cheap and DIY.
What’s the big deal with cocktail ice?
It’s true, fancy ice can be a bit of a hard sell, especially because it takes quite a bit more effort to produce than regular cubes. But the benefits are significant. It all comes down to how quickly you want it to melt.
When sipping a cocktail or spirit on the rocks, you generally want to have as little dilution as possible. Hence the popularity of so-called “whiskey stones,” which are soapstone cubes you’re supposed to chill in the freezer and use in place of ice. It’s true that they don’t melt, but they also don’t do much to actually chill your drink.
So, we’re stuck using ice. Luckily, there are a lot of ways we can slow down the melting process (contrary to what a lot of snobs think, you don’t want to stop it entirely—a little bit of water can bring out flavors that aren’t as prominent in a neat spirit or undiluted cocktail).
Size of Ice
The first (and generally easiest) step you can take for higher-quality ice is simply to make larger pieces of it. There are hundreds of large-cube ice molds on the market today (we’re fans of the silicone two-inch Tovolo trays), and they’re not very expensive.
The reason size makes a difference has to do with the ratio of surface area to volume. Smaller pieces have much higher surface area to volume ratios, while with larger pieces a smaller percentage of their total mass is exposed on the surface. There are a lot of thermodynamic calculations that we could do to prove it (we might have to dust off the old chemistry textbooks), but the upshot is that the larger pieces melt more slowly.
The only downside of large chunks of ice is that they’re more likely to have a significant percentage exposed to the air as you make your way through your drink. That exposed section of the ice will melt without cooling your drink, so it’s a tradeoff. Several smaller cubes will stay submerged (meaning that all of their cooling goes into your drink rather than the surrounding air) more easily than one large one.
Clarity of Ice
Probably even more important than the size of your ice, though, is its clarity. As we’re sure you know, most ice cubes come out of your freezer looking cloudy, which is a result of the air bubbles that get trapped as they freeze.
As cloudy ice melts, it exposes lots of tiny little cavities left behind by said air bubbles, which in turn makes it melt faster. It’s a positive feedback loop that leaves you with a watery drink a lot faster than you’d probably like.
Contrary to popular belief, the cloudiness has very little to do with impurities in the water, so using distilled water won’t do much to alleviate it.
Clear ice, on the other hand, melts more evenly. As a result, it cools and dilutes your drink fairly consistently (and as an added bonus, it looks great in your glass). Additionally, it’s less likely to crack and split than its cloudy counterparts.
Actually getting your hands on crystal-clear ice is another matter entirely, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Shape of Ice
You’ve probably encountered at least one ice sphere in the wild by now, either in a trendy bar or coming out of your trendy friend’s freezer. In addition to looking super cool (ha!), their spherical shape also helps to reduce melting speed.
This is fairly intuitive if you think about it. The 90-degree angled edges of a cube melt more easily than a smooth, rounded surface does. This creates another positive feedback loop, as the initial melting increases the surface area to volume ratio of the ice cube, and we already know that speeds things up even more.
As a result, ice spheres tend to last somewhat longer than their cubic counterparts.
Temperature of Ice
Finally, one of the easiest things you can do to limit rapid dilution of your drinks is to make sure your ice is as cold as possible when you use it. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celsius for the scientifically-inclined and Europeans among you) is simply the temperature at which water transitions from a liquid to a solid—after that, there’s effectively no limit on how cold it can get (other than absolute zero, of course).
Using ice when it’s fresh out of the freezer—as opposed to letting it sit out in the open air for a period of time—prevents it from accumulating too much liquid water on its surface, either from condensation or melting. The less water there is on the surface, the less it will dilute your cocktail or spirit.
We should note that, while important guidelines to keep in mind, none of these factors are going to extend the life of ice in your glass by more than a few minutes. According to some experiments by Serious Eats, the role of size, shape, and clarity are often pretty overstated. But they do make a difference, and combined with the aesthetic benefits it offers, high-quality ice is worth exploring.
How do I make the ice?
Now that you know what you want from your ice, the tricky part is actually getting it. Bars and professional mixologists typically source their ice from a distributor who delivers it in large blocks, which they then cut into various shapes by hand. That’s a prohibitively expensive proposition for most home bartenders.
Instead, we defer to the expertise of Alcademics’ Camper English, whose compendium of homemade ice experiments is second to none. Seriously, this guy has done his homework.
In an attempt to summarize his results (since it’s pretty easy to spend a solid four hours reading everything he’s written on the subject), we’ll point you to one of his most tried-and-true techniques: the cooler method.
Essentially, the idea is that you take a small, clean cooler, fill it with water, and leave it in your freezer with the lid open until it freezes. The upper section of the ice freezes first, because the lower section is insulated by the cooler. This forces dissolved gases downward, relegating most of the bubbles and streaks (the source of all cloudiness) to the bottom.
When you remove your giant block of ice, the upper portion will be pretty darn close to perfectly clear. From there, you can score it with a knife (extremely carefully) and use an ice pick to chip it into cubes of a usable size.
Since cutting ice is actually pretty dangerous, this technique can be modified to use ice cube trays and spherical molds as well. The trick is leaving a small hole in the bottom of whatever mold you’re using, and letting the mold sit inside a cooler or other insulated container filled with water as it freezes. The water in the mold freezes before the water it’s sitting in, and the hole allows the dissolved gases to escape from the mold entirely.
This all sounds like a lot of work, we know. But as you begin to play around with making your own clear ice at home, you may find that you become a little obsessive about it—we certainly did.
Just remember, there’s no shame in being a giant geek when it comes to good drinking.