Cocktails depend on ice – you can’t have one without the other. Cocktails didn’t become a thing until ice was generally available, and Cocktails are a particularly American innovation because ice was “invented” here in America. Obviously ice is almost as old as the universe, but Americans first developed and marketed Ice as something you’d almost always want in a refreshing beverage. So what kind of ice should you use in a cocktail?
Ice obviously cools the drink, but in doing so it also dilutes it to the intended level. Water is an essential ingredient in every cocktail, even if you never added directly.
TL;DR – Science!
Feel free to skip this paragraph. Ice cools your drink down very efficiently. It takes a pretty amazing amount of energy to raise a piece of ice past the melting point – the ice gets stuck on the edge of melting and pulls a lot of heat out of your drink as it transitions to liquid. It takes 100 times more heat to melt a piece ice at 0 degrees Celsius than it does to raise it from -1 degrees to 0 degrees. But as ice transitions from solid to liquid, absorbing massive amounts of heat from your liquid ingredients, it necessarily dilutes the overall drink. The volume of ice determines the total cooling potential, and the surface area determines the speed at which the cooling will happen. This is the balance that you play with when select ice cubes for a particular drink in order to proper the temperature and desired amount of liquid water.
A critical note about dilution is that it’s not bad – liquid water is a key ingredient in cocktails! Over dilution is definitely problematic, but so is under dilution. Professional bartenders have access to lots of different sizes, shapes, and densities of ice. At home, our options are more limited. I choose between three different types: ice maker ice, crushed ice, and large cube ice.
For drinks served up, I use the ice that comes from my freezer’s run of the mill ice maker in the shaker or mixing glass – these mid-sized cubes provide a balance of dilution and cooling.
Crushed ice creates the most cooling and dilution, and it’s primarily used in tropical drinks. I do have an electric crusher, but I prefer using an old style ice hammer. This one works really well. The canvas bag absorbs excess water, keeping the crushed ice dry (for a bit). It’s also a great way to get your aggression out. Careful though, it’s easy to miss a cube or two – they tend to slip away from underneath the hammer.
Finally, when serving a drink on the rocks, I like to use large cubes of clear ice, made with the directional freezing technique, although large format ice cube trays work reasonably well. I explain how to do this at home here. I’m not always together enough to have clear ice on hand – but it’s what I aspire to. It’s beautiful and you can cut it in whatever shape you like to better control the surface area to volume ration – and the aesthetics of how it looks in the glass are unmatched. When I’m not entertaining, or if I’m just disorganized and don’t have clear ice on hand, I use regular cubes for rocks drinks.
Additional Tips on Ice
- Try to keep your ice cold. Take the time to get fresh ice from the freezer each round
- If you’re low on ice, you can re-use it once in a pinch, but pour out meltwater first
- If you need to buy ice, try to find fresh bags with similar sized cubes in them. Buy more than you need and keep it in a high quality cooler so it stays cold and dry
- Periodically dump your ice cube tray so you never end up using old ice that’s picked up freezer odors
Articles about Ice Physics
Ice is actually pretty mysterious stuff to scientists!