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Best Ice for Cocktails at Home

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three mint juleps in copper julep cups
Classic Mint Julep

We’re here to talk about cocktail ice, but as a whiskey drinker, the important of ice and water has been drilled into me from the first sip. While many whiskey snobs poo-poo adding anything to their whiskey, the fact is any non-barrel proof whiskey has water added to it. As have many non-wine spirits.

The master distiller or master blender works with her team of tasters to find the perfect balance of the taste of the whiskey and its aromas to the proof of the product. In lower-proofed whiskies, more of the fruity and floral notes peek out from beneath than stronger-proofed whiskies.

In fact, I have actually done comparison tastings of different types of bottled waters. This cemented the fact that water does, in fact, add flavor and aromas to your cocktails. Try making a cocktail with ice made from tap water in Florida or Chicago and you’ll agree with me. (But don’t use top-shelf bourbon for that experiment.)

Note: if you’re a cocktail geek or bourbon lover, check out my three part article on bourbon and bitters. It starts here.

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History of Ice in Cocktails

Ice wasn’t always in cocktails because before the mid to late 1800s, it wasn’t readily available for bars and restaurant. Refrigeration didn’t exist. Once ice houses became popular in the mid-1800s, and logistical experts had figured out how to ship that beautiful clear ice from the north all over the country, ice began to be used to create cocktails. (For more on the history of ice see The Bar Book by Jeffery Morgenthaler).

Mint Juleps were an early use of crushed or shaved ice to create a sweet, smooth, whiskey cocktail. For more on the mint julep and its history, you can check out my article on the Classic Mint Julep.

Once we started using ice in cocktails, the cocktail game changed.

The Function of Ice in Cocktails

glass chilling for a cocktail
Cocktail ice at home.

In the creation of cocktails, ice performs two functions: chilling and dilution of the cocktail. Both parts are equally important to create a well-balanced, delicious cocktail, and both affect the taste and construction of a cocktail.

As Dave Arnold says in Liquid Intelligence, The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail, “There is no chilling without dilution, and there is no dilution without chilling.” He calls it the Fundamental Rule of Cocktails.

The act of the ice melting cools the ingredients surrounding it in the shaker or mixing glass. The warmth of the surrounding liquids energy uses entropy to cause the state of the ice to change from solid to liquid. This lowers the overall temperature of the drink while water is added to it (dilution).

Ice Chills the Cocktail

As the ice melts in contact with the room temperature ingredients it reduces the overall temperature of the contents of the shaker. There is a limit to how low the temperature of any combination of fluids will go based on the alcohol content of the cocktail.

Once the cocktail reaches an equilibrium of the reduction of temperature of the ingredients and the alcoholic proof of the content of the glass, dilution and chilling slows. (Note that this isn’t permanent as the ambient temperature of the room will continue affect the cocktail. Dilution will slow, it will not stop. This is evident in the fact that eventually, all of the ice will melt.)

Ice Also Dilutes the Cocktail

clear ice in a jar for cocktails
Cocktail ice at home.

As the ice cubes chill the cocktail, they are changing in state from solid to liquid, adding water volume to the cocktail and decreasing overall alcohol content of the cocktail. The reason cocktail nerds geek out about ice is that it ends up becoming up to 20-25% of the volume of the cocktail once it’s stirred or shaken.

That’s a large amount of flavor to be added to the cocktail. Make sure you use good water for your ice, or at least water that you’re accustomed to. If you always drink the same water, whether it’s great or terrible, it seems you’re less likely to pick out off-notes or aromas than someone new to the water in the area.

Cocktails are designed to be consumed (for the most part, we won’t discuss room temperature cocktails here) chilled. We even chill the glasses before we pour in the cocktail. Dilution changes the flavors and aromas in cocktail. Dilution evens out the rough edges of a hard spirit, or a really tart citrus juice, but it can also mean you lose some of the subtle variations in fruit and floral tones.

It’s a balancing act to get the elements of the cocktail coordinated by their dilution amount and their temperature. Most cocktail recipes will tell you ingredients and ratios, but it’s harder to tell you how long to stir a cocktail because much of the final temperature and dilution depends on the size and type of ice you’re using.

You’ll have to experiment by making cocktails. And drinking the results. If you want a fabulous set of experiments all about ice, head over to Liquid Intelligence. It’s a seriously fascinating, geeky, scientific look at ice in cocktails, how and why it acts the way it does.

The Best Ice for Making Cocktails

Cocktail with orange peel and sugar cubes
Smoke and Spice Old Fashioned

Purists will want to use clear ice for shaking, stirring and serving to make sure that the cocktail can be created and served uniformly each time. Consistency is key in cocktail service. Clear ice is clear because it has fewer impurities, less gas and fewer particles in the water itself trapped during the freezing process. As ice melts, those tiny impurities will become a part of your cocktail.

In addition, clear ice melts slower as it has fewer air bubbles and impurities in it and is denser.  It’s also easier to shape into squares for rocks glasses or spears for Collins glasses because it won’t shatter or break off like cloudy ice full of tiny bubbles and impurities.

For mixing drinks, I’ve seen bartenders use both one large ice cube in a mixing glass, or a scoopful or larger format ice cubes in a mixing glass or shaking tin (1-2″ cubes).  In general, the larger format ice cubes provide less surface area for the ice to melt so they give the mixologist more control over the ice’s chilling and diluting properties.

The Best Ice for Serving Cocktails

For serving, the best ice is determined by the type of drink and glass. A tall Collins or highball glass is best filled with one long spear of ice to fill the glass or a set of larger 1-1.5” cubes.

A squat rocks glass filled with a spirit-forward drink like an old fashioned would be best served with a large, clear cube or sphere of ice which looks beautiful, and melts slowly, limiting the dilution of water into the drink because of the reduced surface area.

And for a tiki drink or a julep, crushed or pellet ice will get that frosty sheen on the outside of the metal julep cup or glass tiki mug. The best crushed ice comes from clear ice, as it cracks a little more uniformly and doesn’t have the impurities and air bubbles in it which accelerate melting and therefore dilution.

Cocktail Ice for Cocktails at Home

cup with ice cubes with fruit and herbs in them
Cocktail ice at home.

Let’s be real here. Not everyone is going to start making their own clear ice at home for all of their cocktails. And even if you do, at some point you’ll run out and have to make do with what’s in the freezer. I’m going to cover how to make your own clear ice (ridiculously easy to do) later this week, but for now, when creating ice for cocktails at home, create larger format cubes for shaking and stirring, where possible, even if they aren’t completely clear.

Here are some tips about cocktails at home and ice:

Tips on Cocktail Ice at Home

Consistency

Whether you are creating clear ice or using freezer ice from the refrigerator, know the limits of your ice. Be familiar with how long you can stir or shake before it over dilutes. If you’re always using freezer ice, you’ll know how long you can shake or stir it as you make cocktails. Now, go to someone else’s house and you’ll have a dilemma. But, if you can’t afford or don’t have time to make clear ice, know the strengths and limits of the ice you do have.

Ice absorbs flavors. A lot.

Don’t leave ice languishing in open molds in the freezer. Take it out of the molds and double bag it in freezer Ziploc bags. Some experts recommend keeping it in the freezer no more than a week before replacing it. That’s excessive for me, but if you’re a true purist, having complete control over all aspects of the flavor is important to you. Follow that advice. If you can smell your ice, it’s time for new ice.

Don’t put your cocktail ice next to a cracked or half open container of last year’s frozen chili or the frozen fish for Friday. As much as possible, keep your cocktail ice separate from foods that give off odors even when frozen. In an ideal world you’d have a separate freezer for your ice.

Ice is like a magnet for off flavors in the freezer. Beware.

Drain extra water from the ice before you add to your shaker

If you tend to fill up your shaker with ice before compiling your cocktail ingredients in the other half, put a strainer on the top of it and shake off the excess water before adding it to the shaker or tin with the cocktail ingredients. Make sure only ice and not water is going into your mixing glass or shaker as you’re ready to mix.

Temper your Clear Ice

tequila cocktail with orange garnish
Taco Truck Old Fashioned

This one is hard. Patience is rewarded. If you’ve made clear ice, you must let it temper, or warm up a bit, before you pour your cocktail over it or begin to shape it.

If it’s clear large ice cubes for serving, keep it out on the counter until the cube turns clear and shiny (generally no more than 5 or 10 minutes) before pouring the cocktail over it. Otherwise, you’ll hear the crack when it splits.

And if you’ve got a piece of ice you need to shape, you must let it come to room temperature and become shiny and glistening before you try to cut it. Otherwise, it will shatter and crack as you work it. Ask me how I know this.

If the clear cube or piece of ice looks frosted on the outside, wait until it’s clear to attempt to work with it or use for a cocktail.

Getting that lovely frost on the outside of a mug

For glasses with a frosty exterior, you’ll want to go with a metal or frozen glass and crushed or nugget ice. The crushed or cracked ice quickly drops the temperature of the drink and generates that frost. It also dilutes very quickly, so make sure not to overshake or stir your cocktail before pouring over the crushed/cracked ice.

For a spirit-forward drink use large format cubes

Say you’re serving an old fashioned or a Sazerac and you want to serve it on the rocks. I’d use one large cube or sphere, if you could. Two inch molds are relatively easy to find. You’ll reduce the amount of dilution you’ll have by using one large rock, but still keep the drink well cooled. If you can get a cube large enough that it doesn’t float once the cocktail is poured in, you’ll be keeping the surface area that much lower.

Know your ice

If you know you’ll use a large format cube for the mixing glass you know that you’ll need to stir longer to achieve the same dilution as you would if you used ice from the freezer or smaller format cubes.

But, if you know in advance that you’ll use freezer cubes to chill and a large clear rock to serve, you know won’t need to stir as long for chilling/dilution prior to serve.

If you know you’ll be serving on ice with more surface area, freezer ice from the fridge, say, think about under-diluting the cocktail. Get it just cold enough to serve, but still too strong/high in proof. After a few minutes, it will be perfect for sipping.

Cocktail Ice at Home – in Conclusion

old fashioned cocktail with orange twist
Old Fashioned Cocktail

The two simplest things to remember are 1) the Fundamental Rule of Cocktails, that ice provides both chilling and dilution of the cocktail, and 2) know the ice you’re using.

With those two pieces of information you can learn to use the ice that you have or can create at home in ways that work best for the cocktails you’ll serve and the ice you have available to create them.

Did you try it? I love getting unsolicited DRINK pics from you when you try out a cocktail. Send them along to me on social media. Join me on my social channels at @cocktail_contessa on Instagram and Cocktail Contessa on Facebook and use the hashtags #cocktailcontessa and #bourbonismycomfortfood.

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By on September 23rd, 2020
Picture of Heather Wibbels, Cocktail Contessa, pouring a cocktail

About Heather Wibbels

Heather Wibbels is a whiskey enthusiast (Executive Bourbon Steward, no less) with a passion for cocktails. She loves researching and designing cocktails, drinking cocktails, and teaching cocktails. Mostly whiskey cocktails, given her Kentucky location

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