Temperature, flavor and texture can make or break a cocktail, so the shape, size and quality of ice in a bar should never be afterthoughts. A few years ago, oversized, singular ice squares landed—solidly, dramatically—in whiskey drinks across the country. Even if those 3-ounce cubes aren’t ideal for all cocktails, they became so ubiquitous that customers started to take note of the effect on their drinks.
It actually pays to be particular about ice, says Justin Elliott, general manager and managing partner at cocktail bar and music venue the Townsend in Austin, Texas, especially because ice’s job is to stabilize a drink. Soft, high-surface-area ice “just absolutely gives up” in cocktails, Elliott says. So chip ice, the crescents that standard hotel ice machines spit out, is what Elliott calls “shi!ty ice,” not because it isn’t sexy or spherical or perfectly clear but because it doesn’t do its job. And Elliott takes the role of ice in cocktails seriously—going so far as to include the type of ice used in cocktail descriptions on the Townsend’s menu. To help you adapt some of the secrets of a cocktail aficionado, he shares some tips.
1. Focus on the lifetime of the drink. A cocktail should be equally delicious from start to finish, and Elliott recommends a good drink should last about 15 minutes. Test your ice by taking a sip when a cocktail is first built, then after three to four minutes, then after 10 to 12 minutes. The best ice for that drink holds its temperature and strength throughout the duration of the cocktail.
2. Think about the surface area. The greater the surface area, the faster the drink will dilute, which is why standard crescents water a drink down quicker than a spherical ice cube with a smaller surface area.
3. Don’t be afraid to build drinks in different ways. You may think your menu needs a gin drink on the rocks, but if that specific recipe tastes better shaken and served up, don’t fight it.
When it comes to cocktails, ice is no longer a one-size-fits-all proposition. Consider these options to move past “on the rocks” from Elliott.
Best for: Rapid dilution of viscous, syrup-heavy cocktails and creating a soft, chewable, snowlike texture.
2-inch by 2-inch block
Best for: Straight spirit pours or stirred cocktails. These ice blocks have a visual impact that can increase the perceived value of the drink. They also prevent diluting already well-balanced stirred cocktails that just need chilling.
Best for: Hard-shaking cocktails. These cubes infused with air open up flavors and help citrus ingredients shine.
Best for: Splitting the difference between flaked ice and cubes, a sort of in-between shape; it preserves carbonation better than crushed ice.
Rise of the Machines
Some of the Townsend’s specialty ice shapes come courtesy of a Hoshizaki flaker and Hoshizaki cuber. Clinebell machines also produce crystal-clear blocks from 11 to 300 pounds, which can then be broken down into smaller shapes. Cocktail-ready and custom-shaped ice also can be purchased in most cities. There’s JustIce in Chicago, Fat Ice in Austin, Texas, PDX Ice in Portland, Oregon, and New York City’s Hundredweight Ice.
More Punch from the Ice Box
Punches and large-format drinks accompanied by an ice block have a story to tell. They freeze from one side to another like a wave, pushing trapped gas and other impurities across its length. Large blocks have an advantage; the impure section, which melts faster, can be cut off, leaving behind pure, clear ice.
An editor at Draft Magazine, beverage expert Kate Bernot appreciates the right-sized ice in her cocktails. Follow her on Twitter @KBernot.