Good Ice Makes Great Cocktails
by Darcy O'Neil on March 2011
Ice can be a pretty boring topic, unless you are talking to a cocktail enthusiast, then you just need to sit back, listen, and enjoy the cocktail they served you demonstrating the potential of ice. Besides filling the glass and chilling the drink, what’s so important about ice? Well, there are a couple of things, including how the ice chills a drink and what it contributes in the way of flavour. Yes, certain ice cubes contribute flavours, and not good ones, usually malevolent ones. Other factors, such as the size of the ice cube, can also affect your drink. Isn’t this splitting hairs? Not really and I shall explain in greater detail why using good ice is a good thing.
The obvious part about ice is that it is simply there to chill the drink. It is true that a really cold cocktails taste better, and that’s because cocktails have a different flavour balance than wine or beer. Your standard megabrew beer has a low alcohol content (5% ABV) so serving it even lightly chilled will remove any traces of the alcohol flavour. When you get into vintage wines, they can have an alcohol range from 12% to 15.5% so the alcohol is more apparent. If the wine is served too warm, then the alcohol will take over and make the wine “hot”. This is not good. But cocktails can have an even higher percentage of alcohol, think martini, so they need to be much, much colder to avoid that “hot” alcohol sensation.
To chill a cocktail you want to use very cold ice. The colder the ice, the more heat it can “pull” from the warm spirits and mixers. To tell if ice is really cold you can simply look at it; if it has a wet look it is starting to melt and is around 0C; if it has a dry frosty appearance it means it is still very cold. The simple rule is that the colder your ice, the colder your drink.
So somewhere in history somebody got the bright idea to put their gin in the freezer to make a super-cold martini. Well that does make the martini cold, but it fails in one area where ice is also important, and that’s dilution. This is another important function of ice. If you think about the wine example and the “hot” alcohol flavours at, let’s say 13% ABV, then having a drink that clocks in at 20% to 40% ABV will completely nuke your taste buds. Cold just won’t make it better. Every good bartenders knows that a little bit of dilution is what makes a drink smooth and appealing. It is always a balancing act, but the general advice is don’t chill your spirits because they need to be warm enough to melt the ice.
Now, fresh ice is best. So I’m going to be straight forward with you so there is no confusion, don’t use ice cubes that have been siting in your freezer for a month, or even a week. Ice cubes will pick up all of the flavours floating around your fridge and pass them on to your cocktail. If you don’t believe me here’s a yummy little experiment you can try.
1. Take an ice cube tray, fill it up and let it sit in your freeze for a month.
2. At the end of the month put as many of the ice cubes into a glass and let them melt.
3. Fill a glass with fresh water from the same source you used to make the ice cubes.
4. Take a sip from both and see if you can tell the difference.
In all likelihood you will probably smell the difference. Do you really want to drink the funky water? If you don’t drink the funky freezer water, why are you putting it into your drinks?
Finally, the size of your ice cube can change the way your drink tastes. Smaller ice cubes tend to melt faster, therefore diluting your drink quicker. A drink will taste its best when it is served, the longer you take to drink it, the less flavour it will have when you finish. So here is another bartender trick, use big ice cubes. Bigger cubes will have less surface area then a bunch of smaller cubes. This means that when the bigger cubes melt, they release the water slower and your drink doesn’t get soggy.
Most home ice cube trays are perfect since they make a fairly large cube, but I’ve observed some manufactures changing to smaller cube trays which is not good. Also, a lot of bars are using small ice cubes which isn’t optimal, but many of the truly great cocktail bars have continued using, or switched to, the large ice cube because they know it makes a better drink.
Like great food, great cocktails need to be made by looking at the little details that are commonly overlooked. Ice is a big part of a drink, so using cold, fresh ice is the best way to avoid off flavours and soggy cocktails.