The Truth About the Fancy Ice in Your Drink

by Elizabeth Gunnison


Is there anything more ludicrous
than hand-carved cocktail ice?

"Premium" ice is everywhere these days: crystal-clear hunks, globes, rods, pebbles, and cubes that are as much a part of the modern cocktail toolkit as your small-batch bitters and old-world aperitifs. Seeing as we've entered the warmest part of the year, it seems a good time to explore that which cools our drinks down. Is it worth upgrading your standard-issue freezer trays? And if so, how?

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The gist is this: The usefulness of custom ice comes down to dilution rates. A large block melts much more slowly than many small pieces, holding a drink at a constant, lightly-chilled temperature and slowing the speed at which your Glenlivet 18 turns into a glass of very expensive Scotch-flavored water. This is a good thing. On the other hand, drinks like swizzles and juleps depend on quick-melting crushed and pebbled ice to keep them super-cold and infuse the ideal amount of water into the mix. Different drinks call for different cubes.

The main types of ice being used in top cocktail bars are:

• Big cubes for shaking and stirring: 1-1/4 x 1-1/4-inch blocks made by a Kold-Draft ice machine.

• Blocks to be broken down into smaller pieces: up to 300-lb slabs, harvested from a Clinebell machine. Cutting ice is an art.

• Large cubes to serve in drinks, mostly those prepared in old-fashioned glasses. Made from molds or cut or chipped from larger blocks.

• Rods to serve in drinks, mostly those prepared in Collins glasses. Made from molds or cut or chipped from larger blocks.

• Spheres to serve in high-end spirits or fancy cocktails, usually in old-fashioned glasses. Made from molds or carved or picked from large cubes.

• Pebbles to serve in cobblers and swizzles. Made by a Scotsman ice machine.

• Crushed to serve in juleps. Pounded with a wooden hammer in Lewis ice bags.

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How you build a drink is important, too, in terms of controlling dilution. A mojito is a great example. We muddle the mint, mix it with the lime juice, simple syrup, and rum, shake it with ice, then pour the liquid over fresh ice in a Collins glass. That way you're pouring something cold over something cold, and the whole drink stays cooler, with less dilution.

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If you want to upgrade the ice you make at home, you can buy silicone molds for large cubes and spheres. Clean your freezer out to remove odors, seal any remaining items in airtight containers, and fill your molds with warm, filtered water. Impurity-free water, a vibration-free environment, and the warmest possible freezer setting will provide more clarity.

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