Ice is the most important ingredient in the bar because it's required to make the majority of cocktails and mixed drinks. Whether you're mixing up a drink on the rocks, shaking or stirring a martini, or firing up the blender, you need ice. The only exceptions are hot drinks and a few cocktails like the Champagne cocktail.
Since it is so essential, cocktail ice deserves more than a little attention. If you're using cubes that have been in the freezer for months or ice made with tap water, it's time to step up your game. Better ice really does make better cocktails!
The Purpose of Ice
It's easy to think that the sole purpose of ice is to chill a drink, but it has additional benefits. When a cocktail is shaken or stirred with ice, the ice breaks down and adds water to the drink. This dilution marries the drink's flavors while mellowing the alcohol and heavy fruit flavors to create a smoother and more enjoyable beverage.
There are four basic types, or forms, of ice: cube, cracked, shaved, and block. Each has its uses for various styles of drinks. In the book, "Imbibe!," David Wondrich quotes Jerry Thomas' 19th-century rules for using ice, and these are still somewhat relevant in modern mixology:
"As a general rule, shave ice should be used when spirits form the principal ingredient of the drink, and no water is employed. When eggs, milk, wine, vermouth, seltzer or other mineral waters are used...it is better to use small lumps of ice..."
The "lumps" Thomas refers to are the equivalent of contemporary ice cubes. These are good for almost all mixing requirements: shaking, stirring, drinks on the rocks, or those with juices and sodas. Cubes with a larger, thicker surface area melt more slowly and cause less dilution.
Standard 1 1/2-inch rectangular cubes are the workhorses of the bar and an economical choice for mixing and serving drinks. Consider purchasing larger ice cube molds if you serve many drinks on the rocks, such as straight whiskey or lowballs like the white Russian.
In most drinks that are shaken or stirred, then served over ice, you'll use two rounds of ice cubes. While mixing, ice cubes break down significantly and will melt faster if poured into the glass. Straining the mixed drink over fresh cubes is one way to avoid an overly diluted beverage.
For best results, it's customary to fill a glass or shaker two-thirds full, which is about one cup or five to six standard ice cubes.
You can also pound ice cubes into cracked or crushed ice. It requires a Lewis bag, similar canvas sack, or a clean towel, as well as a blunt object (e.g., hammer, mallet, muddler). It's a little bit of work but a therapeutic way to get out any frustration.
Smaller than cubes, cracked ice—such as bagged ice from the store—melts faster and adds more water to drinks. It's preferred when making frozen drinks because ice cubes can clog the blender blades and lead to inconsistent results. Two-thirds to one cup of cracked ice is perfect for a single frozen daiquiri or margarita. You'll also find cracked ice recommended in tropical cocktails, such as the Bahama mama, and it's a good size for cocktail glasses.
Crushed or shaved ice is the type produced most often by soda fountain machines. It's very fine ice that can be used in a shaker or glass to create a thick, slurry of a cocktail. Some cocktails, like the mint julep, prefer crushed ice.
Beyond whacking ice cubes, you can make crushed ice in the blender. The goal is to chop up the ice into pebbles. You will need to drain off the water it produces and want to have a bowl ready so you can pop the crushed ice in the freezer.
You can also use shaved ice to make an "adult snow cone." Pack it in a glass (or paper cone for an authentic experience) and pour liqueurs over the top. Spirits like Chambord, Pama, and amaretto are great alone, or you can build a custom flavor by combining a few.
In the early days of the bar, when ice was a new commodity, all of the ice bartenders used started as a large block. It was up to the individual and their ice tools to create smaller, usable chunks and shavings for mixing drinks. Luckily, we don't have to use picks and shavers anymore.
Today, blocks are primarily used for chilling party punches and can take any form you want. Ice rings are popular and easy to make with a standard ring pan. There are many novelty molds available, or you can also use almost any container available as long as you can remove the solid ice.
The ice ball is another large chunk of ice that's quite popular. In Japan, skilled bartenders carve balls by hand, but molds are available for home use. Ice balls are perfect for serving whiskey on the rocks and lowball cocktails. Even on a hot day, they'll last for hours.
Tips for Making the Best Ice
Basic science says that ice is water in a solid form. Therefore, it only stands to reason that cleaner water produces cleaner ice, which will add water to your cocktails in the end. Start right by freezing water that you would drink: distilled, purified, natural spring, or bottled. Anything but unfiltered tap water is preferred.
- Keep your ice fresh by rotating the newer and older cubes. One month is often too long, so rotate trays and refill them with clean water regularly.
- Avoid storing ice in the freezer near foods like fish or anything else you don't want to taste in your next highball.
- Many refrigerators include an ice maker that produces cubed, cracked, or even shaved ice, and these are very convenient. If you rely on this and your cubes are caught in a bucket or tray automatically, be sure to rotate the ice. Also, consider filtering the water before it hits the ice maker.
- For easy access, store ice during a party in an ice bucket. These are usually insulated and will slow down the melt.