One of the biggest mistakes that cocktail enthusiasts make is not paying enough attention to the ice they’re mixing with. Even with the finest spirits, and freshest ingredients, a cocktail will never be great if the ice is subpar.
By quality, we mean proportionate, dense, and preferably pure (clear) ice. The benefit of clear ice is that there is more control of the water content and temperature you want to achieve; and proportionate ice ensures consistency—in terms of water added—every time you mix.
Water also adds texture and subtle flavor once it dilutes, so pure ice ensures your drink isn’t being hindered by airy, impure, water. If you’ve ever used smelly refrigerator ice in a cocktail, you understand how crappy ice can ruin a drink.
At home, making clear ice really boils down to two options: the cooler method, or premium ice molds. Both of these options use directional freezing, which replicates the way water freezes in a lake: from the top down, and typically at a slow rate. This is due to the lake being insulated by the land — and the same concept applies when using an insulated cooler, or an ice mold that employs similar technology.
Directional freezing ensures that 99% of the water’s impurities are pushed to the bottom, leaving the purest ice at the top. Most ice molds on the market freeze from all sides, creating cloudiness in the end result.
While there is a genuine science as it relates to ice in cocktails, we are going to leave that to Dave Arnold and his nerdy brilliance for now and just get you started on how to make this ice at home.
The Cooler Method
Every ambitious, overly enthusiastic home bartender starts out using the cooler method. It epitomizes the notion of craft, and is well-worth the work if you are willing to dedicate your time and patience. One of the benefits of using this method, rather than buying a clear ice mold, is that it typically yields more ice. The downside, however, is that it takes a bit more work to harvest the ice—you’ll have to cut it into serving-size cubes yourself, and it takes at least 1-2 days to make the ice block.
Before you get started, you’ll want to buy an insulated cooler and make sure that it fits in your freezer. If you have a chest freezer, amazing; otherwise you’ll want to measure first. Once you have an insulated cooler that fits—the hard plastic kind—fill it with water and put it in the freezer without the lid on.
After waiting 1-2 days, it’s time to extract the ice. You’ll want to empty the block onto a table that is okay to get wet — there will be water at the bottom. To cut the ice, you’ll need a serrated knife, wooden or rubber mallet, a cutting board, and some cut-resistant gloves (just to be safe).
While the cooler method shows a bit of artisanship, the ice mold method is all about efficiency. In the last decade, companies have designed molds that use directional freezing to make clear ice. These molds are relatively hassle-free, requiring nothing more than patience as they take 24 hours to fully freeze.
True Cubes yield four 2-inch cubes, while Wintersmiths has a variety of mold options that includes spears for long drinks (like a Gin & Tonic), spheres, and two different-sized cubes. They only yield a few cubes at a time, but they are perfectly clear, and will make for an aesthetically-pleasing, delicious cocktail.