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How to Make Your Ice Shine in Bourbon Cocktails

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old fashioned cocktail with orange twist
Old Fashioned Cocktail

Clear ice looks lovely in a whiskey cocktail but tempering ice is critical to keeping that look. Especially when it’s one large cube reflecting that beautiful amber liquid. If you’ve never made clear ice at home it’s not complicated. Here’s a link I use when I make my own. Note that using distilled water or boiling it first doesn’t really help much. The trick is to use directional freezing.

Summer is the perfect time to practice your ice skills. Even a hard-core neat whiskey-drinker will often prefer a pour over ice once the weather gets hot enough.

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How to Make Clear Ice and Temper Ice at Home

  1. Fill a small size pack cooler full of water.
  2. Place it in the freezer without the lid on.
  3. Let the water freeze for 24 to 36 hours. Several inches should be frozen at the top, but there should still be some unfrozen water at the bottom of the cooler. You can check by peering down through the frozen ice or shaking it to listen for water sloshing in the bottom of the cooler.
  4. Let the cooler sit out for 20 to 30 minutes to temper the ice. Turn it upside down to get the ice block out. Make sure to do this over the sink.
  5. Once it’s removed from the cooler and all sides are translucent, not frosty, the ice is ready to shape. Use a serrated knife to score the ice block and a knife and a mallet to break off pieces.
  6. Store all ice in freezer-safe containers. I usually store mine in freezer bags, then place the sealed bags in larger plastic containers.

How Directional Freezing Works to Make Clear Ice

Directional freezing is the same kind of freezing that occurs on bodies of water in nature. Items freeze from the coldest surface of the water towards the warmer surfaces of the water. As that freezing occurs, impurities, air bubbles and the like are pushed down towards the unfrozen section – so deeper down below the ice as it freezes.

That means that the very bottom of the ice will be cloudy with impurities. If you’ve ever used a small freezer ice cube tray you may have noticed that the ice cubes are clearer on the outside and top of the cubes, but become cloudy the closer they are to the midline of the tray. This is an example of directional freezing at work!

Don’t Forget to Temper Your Ice!

rum old fashioned on a cutting board with spices
Rum Old Fashioned

The worst sound in the world to a cocktail lover is hearing a beautiful clear cube or sphere crack as soon as you pour a stream of liquid into the glass. The temperature difference between the liquid and the ice causes the ice to warm too quickly and crack.

The secret is to temper the ice: once you remove it from the freezer, let it sit at room temperature for 4 to 5 minutes before pouring the beverage or whiskey into the glass. This will work with ice already cut to size to fit in a glass. Tempering allows the outside of the ice to come to room temperature before it’s used or shaped.

It will often take a few minutes to gather the ingredients and make a cocktail before it’s ready to pour. Set out your glass with your cube to temper while you make the cocktail, and it should be ready for use by the time you’re ready to pour.

Temper Clear Ice Before You Shape It

If you’re working to shape a large block of ice into smaller cubes, let it sit at room temperature as long as 20 to 30 minutes before you start to shape unless you want your block to crack and shatter as you work it.

Do not rush this part! Trying to shape ice before it is tempered will only result in diagonal edges and cracks throughout the ice. Once cracks appear in the block you’re working on, it will be hard to control and correct those edges. Take your time and work on something else while waiting for the ice to temper for shaping.

How to Tell if Your Ice Has Tempered

It’s easy to tell if your ice is ready to be used for a cocktail or shaped into ice.

When removed directly from the freezer, the surface of the ice will be frosted, like the outsize of a beer mug removed from the freezer. After a few minutes, the surface of the ice will become shiny and translucent. This means your ice is ready to work: whether that’s as ice in a cocktail or ready to shape and cut.

Tips for Working with (Clear) Ice 

  • To create beautiful cubes, make sure to set your ice on a level surface.
  • When shaping clear ice, try to place any cuts you are making towards the middle of the width of the block, rather than cut left to right in small cubes right at the start.
  • Use a serrated knife to create small cuts/indentations in the ice before using a mallet or hammer to separate sections of the ice.
  • Keep your ice in a well-sealed container to prevent absorbing odors from other food in the freezer.
  • Over time any ice becomes stale and slightly freezer burned, especially when stored in a container that doesn’t seal tightly. Plan on using your ice within 2 to 4 weeks.
  • If you want an easy way to make it at home, I have this one and it makes beautiful cubes: True Cubes (affiliate link). But, it only makes 4 at a time.

Other Great Cocktail Tutorials to Check Out

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By on June 25th, 2022
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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