Shine a bright light in the eyes of an accomplished mixologist and he or she will eventually admit that ice is most important ingredient in cocktails. It impacts every aspect of mixed drinks and does so with little cost and no marketing or packaging. In a time when success behind the bar is measured one drink at a time, outfitting your bar with the most advantageous type of ice is essential.
Its contribution goes beyond lowering the temperature of a cocktail to its proper serving temperature of around 37-38EF. While only the genuinely obsessed would stick a thermometer into the drink to ensure it’s sufficiently chilled, the fact remains that cocktails rapidly increase in temperature moments after hitting the glass. Ice plays a crucial role in postponing the inevitable.
“Equally important, ice introduces water into a drink. It helps to balance the blend and allows the various ingredients to meld and harmonize,” says Debbi Peek, portfolio mixologist for Bacardi USA. “The water also softens the biting edge of spirits, as well as accentuates their flavor.”
According to Jonathan Pogash, director of cocktail development for New York’s Hospitality Holdings, which operates numerous venues in Manhattan, the relative hardness of ice is an often over-looked attribute. “A hard cube, lump cube or block of ice will dilute a drink at a much slower rate than your run-of-the-mill ice machine ice cube. If ice isn’t hard enough it will melt too quickly and over-dilute the cocktail. A “wet” ice cube is one that has been tarnished with excess water on its surface, thus allowing it to melt at a much quicker rate than desired.”
Another consideration is the nature of the water used to make ice, the quality of which will affect the taste of the finished drink. For that reason it’s advisable to use ice made from spring or mineral water.
Celebrated chef and mixologist Kathy Casey thinks ice made with soft water produces better ice for drink making. “Many operators fail to factor in the type of water they use to make their ice. While spring or mineral waters are preferable, they’re not necessarily a practical option at a bar. However, installing a water softener is relatively inexpensive. And because the water is also filtered, the ice comes out free of haze or clouding. Crystal clear ice is more aesthetically pleasing.”
The size and shape of the ice you use play a key role in how drinks taste. “Small ice cubes tend to melt faster than larger cubes and will therefore more quickly dilute mixed drinks,” contends Peek. “A drink made with small cubes will taste best when it’s first served, but becomes watery and less flavorful in short order. Larger ice cubes melt slower and release less water into a drink. That means the first sip will taste as good as the last.”
Ryan Magerian—mixologist and creator of Aviation Gin— thinks large format ice looks a whole lot sexier than standard bar ice, especially when stacked in a Highball glass. “More importantly, that using fewer, large format cubes presents less surface area and results in slower dilution. I recommend making drinks with 1.25-inch cubes, especially those from Kold-Draft or Hoshizaki machines. They’re produced to be dense and slow melting.”
Casey also prefers working with larger ice. “I think the square cubes from Kold-Draft are superior. They’re perfectly clear, uniformly shaped, and because of their density, they melt slower and cool faster.”
Long a staple in Japan, ice balls are gaining popularity behind American bars. Ice balls are seemingly the perfect marriage of form and function. Made on-premise in molds or carved individually, they look like crystal clear spheres between 3-5 inches in diameter. Their singular shape allows them to melt at a slower rate, thus reducing dilution.
Journalist Yuri Kato is the author of the recently published book, Japanese Cocktails (2009 Chronicle Books, San Francisco) “In Japan, we carve ice balls out of mineral water using an ice pick or knife. In fact, to become a member of the National Bartenders Association of Japan, a bartender must be able to quickly carve a perfect ice ball. Japanese people appreciate the ice ball when sipping whisky. It keeps the whisky at a steady temperature about an hour.”
Peek likes using ice balls when serving cocktails on the rocks. “Since it is round the corners don’t melt leaving the first sip as cold as the last. They’re crystal clear, look sexy and last a long time. In a recent cocktail competition, I presented my entry with an ice ball to ensure it wasn’t watered down by the time it made it to the judges’ table.”
Back in the day, cocktails were prepared with chipped, cracked or crushed ice. Even as late as the ‘70s bars typically carried both cubed and crushed ice in the bartender’s station. But as juleps, frappes and smashes slipped from the limelight, so did the need for stocking crushed ice behind the bar. The Tiki revival underway has changed that.
“Tiki drinks are those popularized after Repeal through the 1950s and 60s,” says Pogash. “Luminaries such as “Trader” Vic Bergeron knew that crushed ice created a massively cold drink and that people in the tropical South Pacific needed more help beating the heat than anyone else.”
Its cooling abilities results from having more surface area than any other form of ice, second only to shaved ice. Magerian adds, “That makes crushed ice is perfect for making Tiki drinks. Not only does it make them cold, but they’re potent drinks, so the extra dilution is an advantage.”
While the cocktail may reign supreme, ice appears to be the power behind the throne. As Pogash says, “You’ve walked into a place that cares about their drinks when you see the proper ice being plopped, dropped, chipped or cracked into your glass.”