Those rectangular cubes coated in frost, smelling faintly of the frozen fish they’ve been hanging out with? The cloudy, oblong lumps that your refrigerator’s machine belches into a bin, terrifyingly, in the middle of the night?
Honey, those are so 1992.
If you’ve spent any time at all in good bars over the past decade, you have probably noticed we’re in a new Ice Age - one that has accompanied the rest of the craft cocktail movement’s directive to think more deeply about the quality of what’s going into your drink. Good spirits, fresh juices, lovely liqueurs and artisanal bitters all may be for naught should the cubes used to chill them melt too much or carry a whiff of halibut.
There’s a whole theory behind which ice goes into what cocktail and why, and how that ice should then be treated. It has to do with desired degrees of chill and dilution, as well as aesthetics. James Bond might have saved England from glowering henchmen and sinister Persian kitty cats a hundred times, but he undermined the perfect martini for years with his infamous “shaken, not stirred” order.
(If you take nothing from the following ice-ucation, remember this general rule: Don’t shake martinis, Manhattans, Negronis or any cocktail whose sole components are booze-based. Shake the ones with something else added - fruit juice, dairy, eggs - where the icy aeration of ingredients with unlike textures does good things for the consistency of the drink. Part of the appeal of a great martini is its cold, unruffled smoothness; it should slide from your mixing glass like a silk negligee puddling to the floor.)
Nowhere is the evolution of ice clearer, literally, than in the large, perfect cubes and spheres that you’ll find in many craft cocktail bars today. A large cube melts more slowly than a small one; a cube without tiny air bubbles trapped inside is not only clearer and more aesthetically pleasing, but also less inclined to crack in a drink because of those minute imperfections, says cocktail writer Camper English of Alcademics.com.
There are now artisan ice companies in multiple cities, some (such as Washington’s own Favourite Ice) run by former and current bartenders who saw the market growing and decided to fill the niche. Most of these companies have invested in a Clinebell machine, which produces massive blocks of clear ice that can be sculpted into SpongeBobs, naked wedding cherubs and cocktail ice cut to size. The machine makes clear ice by freezing its blocks from below, using a pump to agitate the water up top and free air bubbles that would otherwise get trapped in the ice and create cloudiness.
Home freezers don’t work that way, and those looking to get clear ice at home have to exercise some real dedication. Few have spent more time in the quest for the perfect cube than English, who, when I contacted him to chat, was awaiting the delivery of an extra freezer to his one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, “because I am dumb and need more dedicated ice space.”
English has been messing about (in a calculated, scientific manner) with ice for years, testing various methods to get clearer ice out of a standard home freezer. Boiling the water, which many bartenders had argued would rid it of the impurities that cause cloudiness, turned out to be unhelpful.
What has helped is directional freezing. English jury-rigged a system that mimics the way the Clinebell works, using insulation - a mini Eskimo cooler, with the top left open, placed into the freezer - to manipulate the direction water inside freezes “so you can maximise clarity in one section of the ice.” The ice still won’t be perfectly clear, “but at least the cloudiness isn’t right in the middle of the cube, making the whole thing look ugly.” With the bubbles herded into a small section of your big cubes or punch block, you can chip or melt off the hazy component and have hunk of crystalline ice worthy of a luxury igloo.
While the big clear cube may be the Peak Geek level of cocktail ice, it’s not the only way to chill.
Here are some of the basics - and ideas for creativity that goes beyond them:
Cubes and spears
At better bars, your Old Fashioned or other rocks drink is likely to come with the medium-size square cubes characteristic of the Kold-Draft machine. These can be evenly and elegantly stacked in highballs. Home mixologists can replicate these with specialty rubber or silicon moulds (and often get drier, denser versions because of home freezers’ lack of exposure to the constant opening and closing that, over the course of a long night, causes melting in a lot of bar ice). Online, the cube moulds are available at Cocktail Kingdom and Sur La Table; Cocktail Kingdom also sells a mould specifically made for long drinks - the Collins ice mould, which creates long, even spears. The Collins moulds can be a bit floppy, so it’s best to set them in the freezer and then fill them with water (otherwise, they can produce oddly banana-shaped results).
Crushed ice/pellet ice
For a drink just a grade less ice-ified than an actual blended drink, pellet ice, the sort that still emerges out of some soda fountain ice machines, is the most toothsome of ice, and a visual treat when piled into a high-dome in a tiki drink or a julep. While you can use a blender, home bartenders can best replicate pellet ice using a Lewis bag, a canvas sack wherein you stick bigger cubes and then whack them with a mallet until they’re the right size. The ice’s pebbly quality makes it a primo choice for a lavishly garnished drink; stacked high, the small pieces provide a sort of florist’s base structure into which mint stems, fruit and tiki gewgaws can be stuck.
But those little pebbles melt fast, making them best in drinks that aren’t harmed by more dilution. At Latitude 29, tiki legend Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s bar in New Orleans, “only two of our 30-odd drinks are served over crushed ice, the Hell in the Pacific and the TOTC Swizzle, just because there’s so much rum in both that the drinks actually want and need the dilution over time,” Berry says. “The first sip’s a bit rough, but as the crushed ice melts, you get just the right balance partway though, and by the time you’re almost done you still get the flavour without too much wateriness.”
Big clear cubes
It’s easy for the home bartender to make the big square or spherical cubes that are de rigueur in the best craft cocktail bars, as molds for them are available all over the Internet. These cubes melt slower than small ones, making them a top choice for booze-forward drinks that need to stay that way (you don’t want your beautifully intense Negroni tasting like diluted mouthwash by the end; after all, you want it to still hurt 10 minutes in).
The challenge for the home bartender is not the size factor, but the clarity: those perfect, transparent cubes that look like polished glass. Small air bubbles get trapped in most ice, leading to cubes with a haze of minute bubbles and streaks inside (and those tiny fissures can lead to cracking and splitting, which increases the melt-rate). If you want to geek out on a quest for clear ice, English’s blog, Alcademics, is the place for you. English worked out a “directional freezing” method to get clearer ice out of standard freezers (it’s a matter of insulating the ice container in a way that controls what part freezes first, forcing the hazy impurities into the last part to freeze).
English’s directional freezing method can come in handy for making large blocks of punch ice. But even if you’re not as picky about how clear they are, punch ice blocks are useful for when you’re making batched cocktails, particularly if they’ll be sitting around in a bowl for a while. Using a bunch of small cubes (especially those bagged disks of ice you get at the grocery store) to chill a large punch will get you citrus-and-booze flavored water pretty quickly.
Think 24 hours ahead instead: When you’re making a bowl of punch for a party, you can use bowls and Tupperware to freeze large blocks of ice to float in it. Include citrus wheels or other punch-appropriate fruits and garnishes in the container and then fill it with water, agitating it as you go to eliminate as much trapped air as possible from around the solids before freezing.
The basic types listed above are the tip of the iceberg. Try freezing juices or diluted liqueurs to create ice that will cause a drink to change as it melts; for example, Jeff Faile of Pineapple and Pearls made Campari ice at a former gig, in a drink that started out Manhattany and gradually turned into a Boulevardier as the Campari ice incorporated itself into the drink.
You can freeze some high-liquid fruits and use them to substitute for water-based ice, or add color to the water you’re going to freeze. Butterfly pea flower extract interacts with citrus juice to create cool color changes; an ice that includes it can give you a shade-shifting cocktail (pea flowers can be ordered online, but there’s an extract called B’lure made by the Wild Hibiscus Flower Company that’s ready-made).
You can use dry ice to create a fog-oozing punch (do so with extreme caution). And English has been including fruits in his clear ice experiments, which can be little works of art. A lime peel cut in a long, unbroken circle and then frozen into a spherical ice mold results in a piece of ice you might expect if Kandinsky served drinks.