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There is much more to cocktail ice than filling a few trays

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Very often when we make cocktails at home, we can be singularly focused on the act of mixing our favourite spirits according to a precise recipe for our colleagues, friends and family. All too often we overlook how our choice of garnish, glassware and ice can simply and easily elevate our cocktails to the next level.

Danny Meyer the New York City restaurateur and the Chief Executive Officer of the Union Square Hospitality Group said, “A cocktail done right can really show your guests that you care”.

In this blog I shall explore the role that ice plays as an essential ingredient and how your loving attention to detail can enhance the flavour quality of your cocktail experience with guests way beyond simply chilling, diluting but also be visually appealing and memorable.

Ice or simply frozen water is an integral ingredient to cocktail making nowadays. It is believed that ice only came into common use in the early 1800’s at a time that the term “cocktail” hit the American lexicon. Before then ice was a regarded a luxury and rarity reserved only for the rich. In 1806 a Bostonian named Frederic Tudor, known locally as the “Ice King” started to harvest ice from the lakes of New England for use in North America and export to Europe. By the time Tudor died in 1864 ice had become an established component of cocktails with ice across the globe.

Making Ice Cubes

There are generally four types, and number of variations, of ice used in making cocktails including Ice Cubes, Shaved Ice, Cracked Ice and Block Ice. These will be explored further below. If you are regular user of ice at home or at your restaurant, bar or café a commercial ice maker would be a worthwhile investment as it is designed to reliably and quickly make ice in a variety of shapes and sizes. Alternatively, low use ice makers at home should consider buying variety of food grade easy-to-use 100% BPA Free (Bisphenol A) silicone ice moulds to create wonderful shapes and let you be creative with edible flowers, herbs and botanicals.

How much ice should a cocktail have?

According to “Professor” Jerry Thomas who is generally regarded as the father of mixology and who wrote the first bartender's manual in 1862. His original rule that in some ways over a 150 years later remains relevant in modern mixology states, “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 is better to use small lumps of ice..."

According to the Beverage Trade Network, “A proportionate mix of water content, ABV of that particular drink and the temperature of the drink are the most important key components of an exquisite cocktail. The ice diluted from stirring and shaking can be 15-20% of your final cocktail. By applying an ABV to each and every cocktail on an individual calculation will be helpful for you to pick the right type and the right amount of ice for each style of drink that you are mixing.”

Creative Ice Cube Making

Though much of this blog will be dealing with ice in its purest form it should not be forgotten that it is an excellent medium to create pretty ice cubes using colourful organic edible flowers, herbs, botanicals and infusions that also look good on Instagram.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Remember not all flowers are edible and never eat a plant or flower if you cannot identify it with absolute certainty. Many flowers are toxic and may look like those that are edible. Use common sense and if in doubt, don’t eat it! Flowers from florists or grocery stores have been treated with pesticides and should not be eaten unless labelled as edible.

If you are picking from your garden share a thought for the bees and other insects who also consume flowers as an important source of nectar and pollen. As the Devon Wildlife Trust highlights that our gardens are vital for urban and suburban bees, with the right planting they can give a boost to early emerging bees and be hotspots for these insects throughout the year. The UK has around 267 species of bee and this includes 1 species of honey bee and 25 bumblebee species, the rest (around 90%) are solitary bees. With a changing climate and increasing habitat loss, bees need all the help they can get.

Preparing and Handling Ice

As a person who loves to serve drinks with verve you will want be prudent in how you prepare and handle ice safely. Here are simple tips.

Firstly, if you don’t use ice very often and you are using tap water you need to appreciate that the quality and composition of the prepared water in your area. Water quality in England and Wales is regulated by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI). This body makes sure all water companies supply safe drinking water that meets legal standards and is acceptable to consumers. However, there is a lot of variation in “hardness” due to the levels of calcium and magnesium salts (bicarbonate, chloride, sulphate and nitrate) dissolved in the water. If you don’t like your tap-water then consider buying a mineral or spring water to your liking.

Secondly, independently of the source of water or type of ice tray it is recommended that you store your ice in a food safe plastic bag or ice pack. Over time your ice will infuse with a combination of the ambient flavours stored in the freezer. Those savoury aromas may not transfer well into your future iced cocktail.

Thirdly, it is essential that you have a hollow handle ice scoop, a serrated ice tongs to hand the ice and use an ice bucket, preferably with a lid, to keep the ice fresh.

Fourthly, if you decide to crush ice and add the glamour of sparkling ice shards to your cocktail then also be bold and add some theatrical drama to your cocktail making. I suggested you use a Lewis bag. This is a strong, durable and triple stitched seamed natural twill cotton bag that is designed to wick and absorb any excess water when securely crushing ice with a wooden mallet or stainless-steel priest.

Big rocks & spheres of ice

Large ice rocks, cubes and spheres are a favourite for spirit-forward cocktails and drinks where the choice of alcohol like gin, vodka or whiskey is centre stage is stirred and served neat often, “on the rocks”. The benefit of a large ice rocks or spheres in a cocktail is their smaller surface area so the drink remains more robust, flavourful and colder longer. If you prefer your cocktail, such as an “Negroni”, from a tumbler known as an old-fashioned glass, rocks glass or lowball glass the large ice rocks or spheres will add less water to your drink, look very stylish and a flawless ice sphere is ideal for rolling around in your glass.

Ice cubes or crushed ice?

Many cocktails benefit from regular sized ice cubes, cracked and crushed ice especially during warmer seasons, climates and easily combined with gin syrups or fruit juices. This type of ice will add just the right amount of dilution to many spirit-forward cocktails, while keeping them consistently chilled. Ice cubes and crushed ice suit many types of cocktail glasses and the taller the glass the less ice and time it takes to chill your cocktail. Conversely, many people enjoy and prefer a copa de balon or balloon glass filled with ice where the wider glass allows greater contact with the air to allow a stronger nose from the ingredients. Standard ice cubes can create a clear looking cocktail when using a stylish Collin’s and Highball glass. Crushed ice cocktails such as, The Merchant's Wife, Gin-Gin Mule or Mint Julep.

Alternative ice shapes

The beauty of ice is its property of being easily moulded allowing it to be created in to a number of shapes including spears. Japanese bartenders are well-known for using their excellent knife skills and razor-sharp blades to carve big cubes into diamonds. Another more technical technique for ice making is called the Igloo Cooler Method or “directional freezing” developed by the by San Francisco-based drinks writer Camper English. Directional Freezing is a simple method to make crystal clear ice by controlling the direction that water freezes. This allows water to freeze into ice from only one direction (one side of a container) and the ice will be clear until the very last part to freeze. The last part to freeze (if allowed to freeze at all) will be cloudy. Rather than going in to the details regard this method as homework for you to research (keyword “Igloo Cooler Method”).

I think we can all appreciate that it takes quality ingredients to create a well-balanced cocktail and an essential component is the presentation of ice. When an ingredient can be up to two-thirds of the cocktail mix it certainly deserves an appreciation.


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