Tailor Your Ice to Your Drink

Paul Blow

The minutiae of cocktails—what alcohol to use, what fresh juice or homemade bitters to add, which type of strainer to buy—is a constant topic of conversation among liquor aficionados. But home bartenders rarely consider one of the most crucial ingredients: the ice.

Is it worth all the fuss? It’s just ice; it cools things down. But different kinds of ice will contribute significantly to the quality of your drinks. Some drinks tend naturally toward larger chunks, while others need smaller pieces, and some need finely crushed ice. Tailor-made ice is all the rage at high-end bars. Here’s what you need to know to ice your drinks the right way.

Finely crushed ice. You’ll want this for drinks that require rapid dilution, like the Mint Julep. This classic drink is neither shaken nor stirred—straight bourbon is simply poured over crushed ice, mint, and sugar. Thus, you want the dilution to happen fast, to make the drink go down as silkily and genially as a soft Kentucky drawl. You can put ice in a bag and pound it with a hammer or a wooden spoon, or you can use an ice crusher to get soft, perfectly textured, uniform ice.

Cracked ice. Large cubes melt too slowly, but cracked ice (you can use an ice cracker) dilutes more quickly and also cools the drink more because of all that extra exposed surface area. So it’s good for either shaken or stirred cocktails. At home, my only ice comes in cubes from ice trays in the freezer. Before shaking or stirring a cocktail, I always crack each cube in half.

Big chunks or spheres. And finally, you have drinks where you want the dilution to happen as slowly as possible. Typically this is when making something like a Gin and Tonic, which doesn’t need more dilution so the ice is just meant to keep it cold, or when drinking a complex, serious (usually brown) spirit, meant to be sipped slowly. A sphere is perfect: It has less surface area than a cube, thus it cools effectively but dilutes more gradually. If you don’t have as sure a hand with an ice pick as this guy, you can make ice spheres at home with plastic molds, or you could invest in this supercool Japanese aluminum mold, which will produce a perfect ball in about two minutes.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.