One of the more overlooked aspects of drinking is the part that doesn’t always go into the glass. Making cocktails is like being a chef, and you are cooking with the chill of ice over alcohol. The cooling effect combined with shaking or stirring has an impact on solution, flavor, mixture and temperature of your output. Using the right kind of ice for the occasion is as important as the quality of your liquor. Ice is big business now, some of the more popular bars and lounges are doing artisanal ice or hand carving cubes and spheres out of solid blocks.
For starters let us talk about water. Before there is ice, there is water. Your ice has to come from somewhere, and chances are that is the tap. Even your built in fridge ice machine is using a line of tap water. Some of the more modern machines will filter the water before it goes into the ice but not all of them do. If you’re like me, and living in a city where the tap water is fantastic, congratulations. Not everyone is so lucky. I’ve been in places where the water was so full of minerals you could run some over your car to fill in scratches. In places like that, chances are you’re buying ice. The downside there is that you don’t know where the ice was coming from and you’re likely getting a slightly filtered product of tap water in a plastic bag.
Fans of dirty dining, kitchen nightmares or restaurant impossible know that ice machines in many of the places out there have not been cleaned in a good long while which can lead to all kinds of stuff growing on the cooling elements. I don’t want to give anyone a complex about it, but it’s gross.
However you get your ice the next thing you want to talk about is surface area.
The size of the cube and shape contribute to the cubes melting speed and dilution.
Round, hollow ice is possibly one of the worst type for cocktails. This is the sort you often find in bag ice. The cubes are weak, have a maximum amount of surface area both inside and out and are often small. This means they’ll break in the shaker, or will already be broken and will melt quickly giving you a watery drink.
In professional restaurants you may also find flake ice or pebble ice. This is the kind of tiny, chewable ice that they favor for soft drinks as you can get them through a straw or bite them and not have a problem. These too are awful for most cocktails, but in some cases where a drink calls for cracked ice they can be a blessing. You’re unlikely to get this kind of ice at home unless your ice maker has a special setting for crushed ice. What causes these to be undesirable is that unless they’ve come straight from the freezer this kind of ice will carry a lot of water on the surface which will dilute the drink you’re making almost as soon as you start shaking or stirring.
What you want in a cocktail shaker are solid, round cubes with no corners to break off that will stand up to a bit of shaking. Barring that, square or rectangular ice is perfect for the home drinker. If you can get your ice from the freezer immediately it will cut down on the surface water which dilutes your drinks more than the shaking or stirring.
If you have to use ice that has been out for a while take bigger cubes and crack them with the back of a spoon. Cracked ice has more surface area but the inside portions won’t have any surface water. Don’t use a lot of it as once you start shaking that dilution kicks back in but it can keep things on an even keel over a long party with warm ice.
I’ve tried to use silicon trays for ice a number of times but they tray always seems to impart some kind of flavor into the ice. It’s not always noticeable but the last thing you want when mixing a delicate cocktail is to dump some chemical smell all over it because you used fancy ice.