Much ado is made of ice these days in cocktail bars. Nice bars no longer have ice—they have ice programs, and staff members dedicated to the work of breaking down large chunks of perfectly clear ice into beautiful hand-hewn cubes and spheres. And I think this is great!
Though we often don’t think of it in these terms, ice is one of the main ingredients in every cocktail, and if we care about the quality and format of our spirits and juices and so on, we ought to care about the quality of ice. In fact, one of the main reasons cocktails at fancy bars taste better than those you make at home may be the ice. While it doesn’t actually matter whether your ice is perfectly clear (though it’s awfully sleek and sexy when it is), the density, purity of flavor, and proper size of your ice does make a difference.
However, as esoteric as ice has come to seem, it all actually boils down—er, freezes down—to three principal types that are the most important. Here they are, plus an example cocktail in which to use each.
Cube ice is, well, your prototypical ice cube. The workhorse of ice. The top-of-the-line ice cube maker for bars is called a Kold-Draft. It’s a spiffy machine that slowly makes approximately 1-inch cubes, freezing the water in one direction, making for very solid, nicely clear cubes. (Fun fact: The only certain way to prevent cloudy ice is to make sure the ice freezes in just one direction so the air bubbles are all forced out as the water freezes, instead of forced to the center.)
Having really solid, fairly large cubes of ice is important because when you shake a cocktail, you can shake the hell out of it for a good 15 to 20 seconds and the cocktail will get gorgeously aerated (what you want with a shaken cocktail) without over-diluting. They also work beautifully for stirring your stirred cocktails (stirring aims to properly dilute and chill while maintaining a silky texture).
Obviously you’re not going to get a Kold-Draft for your home, but you can make good cube ice using 1-inch cube silicone molds. Be sure to use clean tasting water and keep them covered or use them quickly so they don’t develop off-flavors in your freezer. Making sure your ice is free of weird flavors is even more important than making sure it’s a particular size.
If you only have small ice cubes, use more of them for shaking or stirring, but shake or stir for less time. Serve your drink up, or perhaps add an occasional ice cube as you drink it. Don’t fill your glass with tiny ice cubes that will melt in seconds. And, of course, for a long drink, something served on ice in a highball or Collins glass, good old cube ice is the simplest go-to. It feels silly even to give a suggestion for what to make with cube ice because it could be almost anything, but here’s a fun Middle Eastern-inspired cocktail—The Lady in the Bottle—we’ve been making that showcases the texture from shaking with good cubes.
Large Cube Ice
Large ice cubes (approximately 2-inch cubes) are generally more for the serving part of your cocktail experience, rather than the building part. They come into play when you’re serving a strong drink that you want to be on ice so it stays chilled, but you don’t want further dilutionbecause you’ve already stirred it.
The lowball drinks, like an Old Fashioned, Vieux Carré, Negroni,Boulevardier, etc., are great served with a large ice cube, as is any spirit on the rocks. Or try this boozy martini-blonde Negroni mash-up, The Marilyn.
Crushed ice is a necessity only if you’re serving the types of vaguely slushie-like drinks that are designed to be served on crushed ice. I rarely make any of these drinks, but if I do, there’s no substitute for crushed ice.
Juleps, swizzles, cobblers, and brambles, as well as some other tiki drinks, demand crushed ice. Without it, the frosty experience of those drinks simply isn’t the same. If you’re a fancy bar, you might invest in a machine that creates pellet ice. But for home, you can buy electric ice crushers that work pretty well. Otherwise, a canvas bag and a heavy mallet (or a towel and a rolling pin and a bit of unprocessed anger) can do the job of crushing ice just as well. Whack the ice inside the sack or towel until broken into irregular small-sized pieces, but err on the size of pea-sized or a little bigger when you’re crushing by hand so that the ice doesn’t get too melty.
If you want to try a crushed ice drink that’s not a julep or a swizzle, try this one we serve in our bar. We call it the Swedish Snö Cöne.