When I go to a fancy cocktail bar, the first thing I judge the drinks on isn’t the menu, price, quality of liquor, or fanciness of garnishes.
The first thing I judge a good cocktail on is ice.
Using the right ice for the right cocktail can improve your cocktail experience by a huge margin. If you’re making a drink like a mint julep, you want crushed ice so it quickly cools the drink and also waters it down a bit.
But, for most cocktails like manhattans or just straight bourbon or whiskey, you want an entirely different kind of ice. You want large pieces of crystal clear ice. When a bar serves this kind of ice with their cocktails (which usually involves the bartender actually chipping it out of a larger block of ice), I know I’m in for a treat. It signifies that the bartender cares about not all the components of a drink. It’s also a pain in the butt to do, so I always tip extra for it!
It just turns out that this sort of ice is pretty tricky to make at home. I’ll save you all my failed attempts and just skip to the right way to do it!
The Physics of Ice
Before we get into method, let’s talk about why this sort of ice is important for cocktails. There’s two elements at play here: the size of the ice and the structure of the ice.
The size of the ice matters because of surface area. If you have a bunch of normal sized ice cubes, they will melt faster than one large ice cube because they have more surface area exposed to the liquid. This is why snow melts faster than glaciers. Assuming you are shaking and chilling your cocktail separately, you want ice that will melt very slowly. One very large cube gets this done.
Onto the structure! If you have crystal clear ice it means that A) the ice is really pure. It doesn’t have a lot of other minerals or stuff in it that will cloud your drink. Secondly though, it means that the ice was frozen slowly and the crystals are more structured than a fast frozen ice. This means that the ice shouldn’t crack apart in your drink.
The bonus element of making good ice for drinks is that it just looks damn cool.
How to Make Perfect Cocktail Ice at Home
There are many molds on the market for large balls or cubes of ice. I tried all of these. They suck. They don’t freeze evenly and aren’t worth the money.
What you need to do this the right way is an actual cooler. The size of cooler you want is totally dependent on the size of your freezer. If you have a large deep freezer, you could use a medium-sized cooler. For me, I bought the smallest hand-held cooler with a lid I could find.
My wife grew to hate this thing while I was testing this, but this was the only cooler I could find that would fit in my freezer.
I had to completely re-organize my freezer to fit it and turn off the ice maker for a few days AND remove a shelf. Maybe you aren’t willing to do all that for perfect ice. I am!
When you’re ready to make ice, fill your cooler about halfway full with distilled water. You can use a water filter if you have one, but don’t just use tap water. It’ll have too many particles in it.
Then stick the cooler in the freezer for a few days. It’ll probably take 3-4 days for the ice to freeze and it still might not be completely frozen. That’s okay.
After three days, I took this batch out. When removing it from the cooler, run hot water over the exterior of the cooler and the ice will eventually slip out without cracking (hopefully).
As you can see mine isn’t frozen completely, but it still worked fine.
Now it’s time for tools. This ice will be thick. Parts of my ice cube were a foot thick and there’s no gentle way to bust this apart. A screwdriver, a hammer, and maybe a serrated knife are your friends. You can start a crease with the knife and then hammer in the screwdriver and the ice will break along fairly clean lines.
Just keep working the ice until it’s in blocks slightly larger than you want for your cocktails. Then rinse the ice under water to round off any edges or shape the ice however you want.
Then stick the ice in a large freezer bags as you get the pieces broken down. Now that you have the ice, it’ll stay in the freezer for months!
As with anything, it will eventually start picking up flavors from your freezer which is NO BUENO in the cocktail world. But, if you’re a cocktail lover, you’ll use it before that’s an issue anyway.
Look at these beautiful crystals!
This is about as perfect of an ice cube as you can get, in my opinion. It fits in my rocks glasses with about 1 inch around the outside and it’s perfectly clear. It’s a thing of beauty.
There’s no doubt that this is sort of a pain to do, but you can make a big batch of it and it stores great. If you happen to have a large freezer, it’s a no brainer in my opinion!
Having the right cocktail ice is a great way to elevate your homemade cocktails. Give it a shot and CHEERS.