Let me start this post by saying that I love the recent (quickly becoming less so) resurgence of cocktail culture. Many U.S. cities (even small ones) now have at least one “farm-to-fork”….wait…..”grain-to-glass” bar. Home bartenders are trading in flavored vodkas for small-batch Ryes. And Amazon’s shelves are filled with great books that revive old recipes and introduce readers to long-forgotten ingredients. There are even people recreating defunct spirits so that 19th century cocktails can be enjoyed in their original glory.
There is a dark side, however, as every craft cocktail creator vies to be best in town. Some creations become too cute for their own good and even the very best sometimes are over-thought. This blog intentionally does not represent the vanguard. I attempt to convey an enlightened practicality – how to make a great cocktail with reasonable effort and cost. I may veer slightly from this from time to time. You may say that this post is an example. But I stand by the importance of ice. Yes, ice.
Specifically, we’re discussing the source of your ice. We’ve already talked quantity: you want lots in the shaker to get the drink cold while optimizing dilution (Side note – don’t think you can outsmart the system and just freeze your liquor. You do need some ice-melt.).
And we cover shape in many posts. We know that optimizing ice-melt is about surface area, and optimizing surface/mass ratio for the drink in question is important. For instance, large square cubes look and work best for a bourbon or scotch on the rocks because it cools the drink over time without excess dilution. Likewise, many tropical drinks call for shaved or crushed ice. Fruity/rummy concoctions need to be ice-cold quickly for proper beach enjoyment. But regardless of shape, they need a proper source.
Don’t use those nasty, smelly little wedges from your fridge’s automatic ice maker. You know they’re the wrong shape for any drink – but they taste terrible, even when the fridge has a filter. Please, if you think that your ice “isn’t too bad”, try my alternatives below with a delicate drink like a Martini or Daquiri, then tell me you like your stink-wedges.
A perfectly acceptable alternative is bagged ice from your grocer. Usually they’re tube ice that is easily used in highballs as-is, or quickly crushed for a Goombay Smash. The water used is typically much purer than what comes from your fridge. And while not as clean and pure as it could be (see below), I do keep a lot of it handy. Sometimes convenience outweighs propriety.
This is the simplest recipe in this blog….stay with me now:
But by far the best option is to make your own clear ice. And by best, I mean that it is the purest tasting, comes in any shape you cut it into, and is surprisingly easy (and cheap) to make and handle.
Here’s the science: anything that prevents you from looking through an ice cube as if it was glass is not H2O. It can be air or solids. But most of it is chemicals like chlorine that are trapped inside the ice cube as it freezes. These chemicals taste bad too. But how do you set them free? Easy once you know that water freezes first, everything else freezers after.
Traditional ice cube trays freeze from all sides equally. The impurities get caught in the middle, resulting in a little (often big) star of white in the middle of each cube. Just freeze the ice primarily from one direction and all the impurities will chase away from the ice. I do this in a cooler in a chest freezer. The cooler keeps the ice from freezing (mostly) on the sides and bottom (leave the lid off/open).
I spent <$6 on Amazon for an ice pick and a cheap meat cleaver. The meat cleaver, combined with a meat tenderizer (kitchen hammer of Thor) works well for carving the big block into smaller chunks. Then an ice pick turns those, drink-by-drink, into the shape I need at the moment.
Thank you to my friend Daniel who persisted in touting clear ice until I gave in and tried it. I’ve never looked back. And if you want to see what’s missing from this ice, take a small sip of the water that is left unfrozen under this large block of clear ice. Concentrated yuck.