Your Cocktail's Secret Weapon: The Right Ice

You'd be surprised at just how much the stuff can affect your drink's flavor. Don't overlook it.

You’ve been there. We all have. You research the perfect brand of hooch to hit all the right notes on your palate. You buy the extra ingredients — the bitters, the cordials — you even spring for hibiscus water. You build that cocktail according to the book, raise it to your lips and what do you taste? Freezer. You taste freezer.

Ice is the most overlooked, and many say, the most important ingredient in any cocktail. To a bartender, ice is what heat is to a master chef. So just like you wouldn’t (we hope) spend hours making fresh, flavorful pasta and then pair it with whatever half-empty jar of sauce that's been sitting in the back of your fridge for two months, neither should you accept poorly-made ice. Or, just as bad, the wrong kind of ice for evening’s weapon of choice.

But before we dissect each angle of the ice issue, we need to stop, collaborate and listen. Anybody? Vanilla Ic- forget it. Really though, it does make a big difference in your drinks — taking ice seriously is what separates your local dive bar from destination-worthy mixology spots. If you just want to mix a quick cocktail for yourself at the end of a long day, there's no need to sweat it. But if you want to step your game up to unlock all the subtleties of high-end spirits, this is an important point to hit on.

Use the Right Ingredient

Ice has one ingredient, so make it good. Spending $50 on booze for a great spirit and then ruining it with tap water makes no sense. Filtered, bottled or distilled water will all give you better ice. Some even say it makes a big difference to boil filtered water, further purging impurities.

Ice picks up whatever odors or flavors are in your freezer. Because of this, make fresh ice every few days, or keep your ice trays in a sealable plastic bag.

Pick the Right Shape

The most familiar form of ice for most of us is the cube. In cocktail bars, they usually span one inch, which you can replicate at home with a mixology-minded ice tray. For stirring a cocktail in a rocks glass or shaking in a mixer, these small cubes allow for free movement and have enough surface area to chill and dilute the drink appropriately.

Some recipes, like an Old Fashioned, react better with a single large cube because they chill and dilute at a slower rate than several smaller cubes. Two-inch ice cube trays or molds for larger ice spheres work perfectly in those cases.

Ice spears, which can similarly be made with a tray mold, pair well with collins glasses. There are also dedicated collins glass ice molds, which are basically long columns of ice that reach through the whole glass and evenly distribute a chill to the entire drink.

Note: Regardless of the size or shape of your cubes, never put ice in an ice bucket, regardless of how insulated it may be. It will melt, and then your guests will get wet ice — all the dilution with none of the chill. Not cool.

Crush It Down

Crushed ice services an entirely different province of the cocktail realm. Drinks particularly heavy in spirits and sweet notes, like tiki cocktails and mint juleps, require rapid chilling and dilution to prevent them from overwhelming your palate.

Now, you can just smash regular ice cubes in a clean towel, or you could spend 10 bucks for a Lewis ice bag and look like an absolute boss. The canvas sack that, according to The 12 Bottle Bar was originally intended to be a bank bag for coins, makes for an effective, albeit dramatic, way to smash ice with a mallet or muddler. And the canvas absorbs some of the extra moisture, so your ice stays a little dryer.

Punch It Up

A bowl of punch is always the most popular guest at the party. The large format is perfect for a crowd, it's relatively inexpensive to make, the sweet and citrusy notes are accessible enough to make everyone happy, and it's served in a giant glass bowl that makes you feel like a king. What could be better?

The only problem is keeping it cool over the course of several hours without watering it down. The solution is an ice ring.

The night before your shindig, fill a bundt pan with (filtered) water, to about a half-inch from the top. Throw in some lime or lemon slices and maybe some edible flowers, cover it with plastic wrap and toss it in the freezer. When your punch is ready the next day, put the ring in a shallow bowl of hot water (not reaching the top of the bundt pan) and once it can move freely, dump that sucker into the punchbowl. It'll chill and dilute your punch slowly over the course of the party.

It may seem like a lot of work for frozen water, we know. But it's all well worth considering when you want to take your drink to the next level. And when you're taking your first sip, remember that commercial ice started when Frederic Tudor hauled 300-pound blocks out of frozen ponds in Boston. So raise a clinking glass to the guy, then enjoy your perfectly-chilled beverage.

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