A Brief Guide to Enjoying Better Ice In Your Cocktails

Chances are good that you’re not paying enough attention to your ice. Which is fine, as there are plenty of more important things to worry about right now.

As public watering holes stay closed or open on a limited-capacity basis, you’d be wise to up your at-home bar game. That involves some upgrades, whether it’s higher-shelf whiskey, improved equipment, or game-changing additions like good bitters or tiki-friendly falernum. But don’t overlook the chilly stuff — you should also create better ice. You owe it to whatever you’re drinking, whether it’s an involved cocktail or a refreshing glass of lemonade.

clear ice
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Camper English is a spirits professional out of San Francisco. A writer, drinks judge, educator, speaker, and more, he’s also a proponent of good, clean ice. He says for most fixing drinks at home, frozen water is often not even considered part of the larger equation.

“They’ll spend 60 bucks on bourbon or buy the top-shelf ginger beer and then toss some ugly ice into the glass that smells like the sausage rolls it’s stored next to,” he says of most home barkeeps. “But ice is not only something that going to make up 20% of the volume in a cocktail; it’s totally free to make unlimited quantities once you buy a tray or two.”

How do you create better ice? For starters, protect it from other invasive fridge-dwelling things.“Ice is really porous, so any open food in the refrigerator or freezer will make it smell,” he adds. “Either keep your ice in Ziplocs or Tupperware or make sure all your food is in closed containers. It’s so gross to sip a glass of ice water and realize it tastes like pizza because you just threw the box in the fridge instead of a sealed container. Wrap it up!”

Shape is also important. English notes that ice melts at its surface, so it’s all about ratios. It’s why we like the big cubes for Old Fashioneds and the crushed bits for Mint Juleps. “If you want to get a room temperature soda cold as fast as possible on a hot day, go ahead and use that crescent ice from the built-in ice machine,” he says. “But for a slow sipper like Scotch that you don’t want to get watery, one big cube or sphere is best.”

Another consideration is clarity. The best bars use stuff so pure it seems plucked directly from the Arctic. Some prescribe boiling the water beforehand to remove dissolved air (it may also improve the taste of your water, depending on the quality of your tap). English; however, says this is an urban legend, having experimented with boiling and witnessing very little impact. Others take it to another level entirely, freezing artisanal waters they say offer certain flavors or even sensations of minerality.

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Some bars, like Aviary in Chicago, have ice chefs on hand to produce any number of ice incarnations. While it’s a joy to witness (and something we miss all the more amid the pandemic) something like it can be replicated at home. English has a method he’s been pushing for about a decade now. He’s a fan of a good tray or sphere mold, but if you have the space in your freezer — and an interest in doing some of your own cutting — he has an entire page of experiments to play around with.

His ice-making is based on directional freezing, which suggests that freezing from the top down will create cloudy ice in just one area of the block. This is different from most tray systems, which freeze from all sides and therefore cloud up the entire thing. He suggests filling a hard-sided cooler with water and freezing it with the top removed. English says the top two-thirds will be clear and can be cut off of the cloudier bottom section. “Cutting up ice blocks sounds like a lot of work but it’s really fun when you get good at it.”

You can do quite a bit with a good serrated knife, a mallet, and a good pairing knife. You’ll also want some rags at the ready and an ice pick or something similar. For a guide on the cutting itself, take a look at this piece from Tales of the Cocktail. Enjoy the ride and the resulting ice; it’ll vastly improve your at-home bar creations and arm you with some fun (with knives) during quarantine.

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