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What Type of Ice Is Right for Your Cocktail?

Cracked, crushed or cubed? Large rock or Kold-Draft? Brad Thomas Parsons talks to some of the country's top bartenders about when to use each type of ice, and why, when making drinks at home.

Ice Technique

Cocktail formulas can range from simple and straightforward to overly (and often unnecessarily) complicated. But whether you’re working behind the stick or making a pre-dinner drink in your apartment, you’re going to need one common, but essential ingredient: ice.

While it’s true that few of us have the resources of a working bar, it’s nonetheless possible to apply those techniques to drink-making at home. There, just as in bars, standard one to one-and-one-half-inch cubes should be the front-line ice in the freezer. But larger cubes have their place as well, as do varieties like crushed and cracked ice, in both the preparation and serving of drinks.

So, bundle up—let’s navigate the frozen paths of the current ice age in the cocktail world.

Clear Ice

Among the first things to note when it comes to ice is whether it’s cloudy or clear. Though ice from a home freezer will render as cloudy—an effect caused by trapped air and other impurities retained during the freezing process—bars and restaurants have an advantage in the quality of ice they can make, outsource, store and serve. Hence, many of them call on crystal-clear ice from either Kold-Draft machines or block ice deliveries.

Besides its obvious aesthetic advantages, clear ice also serves a functional purpose. “Whether your ice is clear or cloudy… [is] also a matter of performance,” writes Portland-based bartender and writer Jeffrey Morgenthaler in The Bar Book. “More air in the ice also equals less density, which means less cooling power and faster melting.” Conversely, clear ice, with its higher density, melts more slowly.

Journalist Camper English, who has an index of over 75 deep-dive posts devoted to the topic of ice on his Alcademics blog, agrees. Serving a drink with clear ice, he says, “[is] like serving a Mint Julep out of a Styrofoam cup versus a metal one: it performs the same function but the experience is radically improved.” At home, English has employed a technique called directional freezing, using an Igloo cooler placed within the freezer to churn out large blocks of clear ice for use in drinks. The logic suggests that, by forcing the water to freeze in only one direction—from the top of the cooler downwards—it will push away the trapped air in layers, leaving behind clear ice that can then be broken down.

Standard Cubed Ice

In the preparation of drinks, the relatively small, one-and-one-quarter-inch cubes produced by Kold-Draft ice machines have become the industry standard. Their ratio of surface area to volume results in consistent chilling and dilution of cocktails, regardless of whether a drink is shaken or stirred.

Undoubtedly, there’s a devoted bartender out there with a Kold-Draft machine in their garage, but that’s not a reality for the majority of drink-makers—which is where the popular silicone ice trays come into play. “This is what the home bartender will rely on the most,” says Momofuku bar director John deBary. “You can use them to shake and stir cocktails, as well as in drinks like highballs, or even Old-Fashioneds, but keep in mind that they will melt more quickly than fancy, dead-clear ice.”

As for exactly how many trays to buy, writer, illustrator and bartender Andrew Bohrer suggests stocking up, and keeps at least eight Tovolo trays stacked atop each other in the freezer. “Envision how much ice you’ll need and double it,” says Bohrer. “If I’m making good drinks at home, it’s two cocktails per ice tray.” 

Large Cubed Ice

Whether made from a mold, hand-carved from a larger block of ice or served as a fat sphere, an approximately two-inch-large ice cube is what you’ll often want when you’re serving a drink “on the rocks.” Aside from being eye-catching, larger ice cubes offer the benefit of keeping a drink colder for longer, with minimal dilution.

But large ice can be used in the preparation of drinks, too. In fact, in Liquid Intelligence, Dave Arnold notes that shaking with a larger ice cube rather than in a tin filled with smaller ones can improve the texture of the finished drink. “I don’t know why the big cube does a better job; it just does,” he writes (adding that, if additional dilution is desired, a few smaller cubes can be thrown into the mix as well). Dante’s head bartender Stacey Swenson agrees. She notes that “the heaviness of large cubes breaks up and incorporates fruit and herbs easier than standard ice,” and can help to aerate a drink.

Of course, there’s a drawback to using large ice, too: deBary cautions that it tends to underperform when used in the preparation of stirred drinks, as it melts too slowly to provide adequate dilution.

Cracked Ice

Cracked ice is ideal for when you’re looking for ice that’s somewhere between standard cubed ice and crushed ice. Cracking ice—which is done a la minute by the bartender by cupping a standard or large ice cube in one hand and whacking it with the back of a barspoon—reveals the cold center of the cube. “Cracking ice is like chopping wood,” explains Bohrer of the technique. “You are trying to strike through to the center of the ice—not the surface, not through it—[and] it will crack on its own.”

Bohrer prefers cracked ice for use in the preparation of stirred drinks; given that the cold center is already exposed, it makes for quicker cooling. In addition, it offers more surface area, which helps for proper dilution. But this is a matter of personal preference, explains deBary. “I prefer to just stir for longer,” he says, “trading patience for more control over the dilution of the drink.”

Crushed Ice

A snowy mound of crushed ice is among the most appealing types of ice to use in service, praised by Swenson for its ability to soften or thin out intense or viscous ingredients like syrups and purees. This type of ice will also provide an immediate chilling effect on a drink, but keep in mind that it melts quickly and risks over-dilution in a drink designed to be consumed over a long period of time.

What we think of as crushed ice can vary in shape, size and texture—from jelly bean-sized pebble ice to fluffy sno-cone ice—based on the degree to which you break it down. For this, many bartenders actually turn to food processors or blenders—a few quick pulses should do the trick—though deBary notes that the challenge is to keep that ice from melting prior to use. “You must either use the ice immediately, or, if you’re planning ahead, you can put it in a container in the freezer,” he says, adding that chilling that container in advance will cut down on melting.

Or, if this is all feeling a bit overwhelming, you can always take a Netflix-and-chill approach. “Who cares?,” says Nicholas Bennett, head bartender at Porchlight. “It’s your home and you can drink however you want to. Just don’t use the ice that your refrigerator makes. That stuff is disgusting.”

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