Not all ice is created equal, as it turns out. So we turned to the experts at London’s Crossroads bar to help explain why ice is the vital element in your drink.
If you had told me before I joined the world of drinks that I would care at all about the quality of an ice cube, I would probably have taken a sip of my vodka and squash (forgive me) and laughed you out the door. Now, a near-invisible, slow-melting ice cube brings me unparalleled joy, and vodka and squash remains exactly where it should – deep, deep in the past. But my knowledge of what makes ‘proper’ ice proper, why it’s better, and how on earth to recreate it at home, was limited. So I turned to the experts for help.
What makes good ice?
Ice isn’t just frozen water. (Well, it technically is, but bear with me.) You’d do better to think of it as a cocktail ingredient in its own right. You’ve invested in fabulous spirits and mixers – why scrimp on the final stage? “A cocktail is only as good as the weakest ingredient, and ice is one in the vast majority of them,” Bart Miedeksza of Camden’s Crossroads bar tells me.
The one thing you absolutely do not want in your ice is air. Well, there are lots of other things you don’t want in your ice, but air is the most likely foe to sneak its way in there. The clearer the ice, the less air it has in it, which is why a good ice cube will be almost invisible when it’s in your drink. “It’s like the bass player of your drink,” he says, “rarely noticed, but keeps the whole band together.”
Ice: the bass player of your drink
Something Miedeksza mentioned was that your ice straight out of the freezer might actually be too cold. It sounds counterintuitive, but ice behind a bar actually sits waiting to get to exactly the right temperature (between -2ºC and 0ºC) and acquires a certain amount of surface water, which will then dilute and cool the drink it’s put into. “In bars we not only consider the amount of ice, but also it’s temperature, shape, purity and volume.”
Yes, ice helps with dilution, but Miedeksza makes an interesting point for the contrary, too. “The amount of ice in a Highball helps regulate the ratio between your gin and your tonic – if you put less ice, you tend to top up the glass with a mixer all the way to the top resulting in a glass of gin-flavoured tonic.” And, obviously, the more ice you have, the cooler it stays and the slower it melts. Stronger drinks all around!
Bad news: the ice you’ve been grabbing from your local supermarket is less than ideal. “Common bagged ice that we find at supermarkets tends to also be impure, with plenty of cloudiness and cracks,” Miedeksza confirms. It’ll melt before you can say “cheers”!
Shaken or stirred?
It’s not just the ice itself, but how to use it. We hope you haven’t been shaking your Old Fashioned, or stirring your Daiquiri. Miedeksza gave me some helpful tips. “As a general rule of thumb a drink containing fresh juice – such as lime juice in a Margarita – will be shaken while one consisting of only (or mostly) alcoholic components is stirred.” Yes, there are always exceptions to the rule – Gimlets and Vesper Martinis just love to make things complicated.
When ice is shaken, it cracks and dilutes “balancing the acidity of juices versus sweetness of syrups, liqueurs,” he tells me. Shaking a cocktail brings the temperature down to a lower temperature much faster, as well as aerating it. Generally, if you want a creamy or a frothy, fluffy cocktail, you’ll want to shake it. But bubbles in a Manhattan or Negroni? No, thank you.
These shorter spirit-forward serves don’t benefit from being too cold, or from the extra dilution of shaking, either. You want to stir these because “you still want your cocktail cold, but not as cold as to dull all the flavours of a beautiful bourbon.” That’s why the temperature for each serve differs: around -6.75°C for shaken cocktails and -4°C for stirred.
Going back to the idea that not all ice is created equal, Miedeksza gave some intriguing insight into the inner ice workings of Crossroads. “We’re quite geeky about our ice and we use different ice as our service ice (the one we use to make drinks) and as our dispense ice (the one that ends up in your drink).” Smaller ice cubes from a machine are used to bring the ice down to the right temperature (depending on whether it’s shaken or stirred), and then block ice cubes almost double the size are used to actually serve it.
Ice at home
This is all well and good, but it’s unlikely that you’ll have any snazzy ice machines in your kitchen. Back in 2014, we even wrote a step by step guide on how to create that wonderful clear ice at home, so if you have some time on your hands you can give it a whirl. Once you have your ice, Miedeksza is here to give us some home-friendly tips on how to use it! Turns out, it’s all about balance. “In a drink, glass should be so full of ice that it’s resting on the bottom at all times. It prevents the ice movement and stops the drink from being overdiluted.” On the flipside, “putting too much ice in your shaking or stirring vessel has the effect of under-diluting a cocktail.” If it’s packed in too tightly, it won’t be able to move around in the shaker and dilute the drink. Simple thermodynamics, duh.
Of course, if this all sounds like too much faff, you can always pop into your favourite bar and get the professionals to do all the hard work for you.