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Cocktail 101: All About Ice

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[Photograph: Michael Dietsch]

Ice plays a crucial role in cocktail making. Not only does it chill a drink, but it also releases water into the cocktail, binding the ingredients, smoothing out the flavor, and taking the edge off the base spirit.

Today, many craft-cocktail bartenders are getting fancy with ice. In some bars, giant blocks of ice are chiseled and carved into large chunks, tall cylinders (for highballs), spheres, and cubes. In the hands of a deft bartender, ice becomes an element of showmanship.

Even at bars without dangerous-looking chisels and picks and Alaskan glacier ice, you'll often find expensive ice machines, such as those made by Kold Draft, that produce large, heavy cubes that melt slowly and rattle around noisily in a cocktail shaker.

All this is cool, if you'll forgive the pun, but absolutely none of it is necessary for the home bartender. In fact, I think for most people mixing cocktails at home, such fancy ice would be a distraction.

In fact, home bartenders have a bit of an advantage over many professionals: freezer ice.

You see, most bars and restaurants don't have anything as fancy as a Kold Draft machine, so the ice that's on hand for the bartender is flimsy machine ice, a hollow pellet or square with a large surface area--both on the exterior of the ice and inside the hollow portion. In most bars, machine ice sits out in an ice bin at room temperature. As it sits, water from the air around it condenses on all of its surfaces. The larger the surface area, the more water on the ice. This can lead to overdiluted drinks.

Not so with freezer ice. The ice in your freezer, if it comes from a standard ice tray and not an automatic ice maker, is dry and dense, and has less surface area—exactly what you need to make a killer cocktail.

"But wait," you may be saying. "Wouldn't a large cube from the freezer have more surface area than a small pellet from a machine?" Yes, but machine-ice pellets are small, usually, much smaller than a cube from your freezer. And this means you need more pellets of machine ice to fill a shaker than if you're using freezer cubes. The more pellets, the more surface area, and the more condensation on those surfaces.

The key to using freezer ice is to keep it in your freezer until you're ready to use it. If you use ice that you've left out on the counter or in an ice bucket, it too will have liquid condensing on its surface, and that can lead to overdiluted drinks.

In this post, I'll walk you through the most common uses for ice in mixology, and in a future post, I'll discuss a few styles of "fancier" ice that can liven up a drink.

Making Ice

First, get a few good-quality ice trays. I like the silicone Tovolo "perfect cube" trays, which make true cubes of about an inch per side. I like them in part because I like the look of a true cube, but more so because the trays won't break like plastic trays do. But plastic trays are inexpensive and easy to find, so if you go with those, you're good.

As to the water ... many bartenders and cocktail writers insist on using filtered water for ice. They reason that the chlorine and other chemicals found in tap water can contribute off flavors to a cocktail.

Now, I drink tap water all day, but I have good water that doesn't taste funny. So I use tap water in my ice, too. If you happily drink your tap water, you can make ice with it. Really. It's okay. If you prefer to drink filtered or bottled, however, go ahead and use that for your ice.

Stash the trays in the coldest part of your freezer and leave them alone for at least a day. You want the cubes to be rock solid and glacially cold.

Cubed Ice

Very little in cocktail making is simpler than this. Unmold your ice cubes and use them in a mixing glass for a stirred drink, a shaker for a shaken drink, or in a serving glass for a rocks drink or a highball.

Crushed Ice

Famous primarily for frozen drinks and mint juleps. You can make crushed ice a couple of different ways. Easiest, perhaps, is to use a blender. A fair portion of the ice will melt, though, just from the heat of the motor, so you might want to drain off excess liquid so you don't water down your cocktails.

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

Another way, and one that's both fun and stress relieving, is to place cubes of ice into a bag, whether it's plastic or canvas (such as an old coin bag from a bank). Or wrap them in a clean towel. Then you simply whack the living hell out of them with a wooden mallet or rolling pin.

Be careful, though: Your countertop will vibrate so much from this action that things will shimmy around on it or even slide off. If you're using a canvas bag, it will wick away excess moisture. If you're using plastic, you might, again, want to drain off any liquid that accumulates.

Cracked Ice

Sometimes you want pieces of ice that are smaller than cubed but not pulverized like crushed. Perhaps your whole ice cubes don't move smoothly in a mixing glass when you stir, or they're too bulky to be crushed in a blender. Or maybe you just like the texture of cracked ice in a beverage. You can crack ice by hand easily enough.

One way is to take an individual cube in the palm of one hand, and whack away at it with the back of a bar spoon. Hit one surface, turn the cube, hit another surface, and repeat until the cube cracks apart into smaller pieces of ice.

Or you can repeat the instructions for piling ice into a bag and slamming it with a mallet. Stop short of actually pulverizing the stuff and you'll have a bag of cracked ice.

About the Author: Michael Dietsch writes A Dash of Bitters. He is an accidental bartender, boozologist, and ice princess. He lives with a spirited female and crazy felines in Providence.

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