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On Making The Perfect Ice For Your Whiskey Or Cocktail

You can’t really blame us. But we Americans have subjected ourselves to poor quality ice since the advent of the automatic home ice maker.

Anything that saved us from making it ourselves using those horrible aluminum “stick shift” ice molds was a godsend. Automatic ice made our drinks automatically cold and we were automatically happy. That it was improved upon with ice through the door was borderline miraculous.

Problem is, such ice really isn’t that good. The cubes (rectangles, really) are small and melt fairly quickly. They’re cloudy due to fast freezing that traps air in the ice, and since they share the same air circulation systems as the fridge, the ice can absorb aromas from food.

Our taste buds knew the difference, and they told us so every time we got a cold drink from a restaurant, bar or service station. The drinks were colder and more flavorful because they used the right ice.

It took bartenders caught up in the classic cocktail movement to clarify the cloudy truth about our bad ices. These studious perfectionists learned that the best ice—used a century ago—was clear, cold, hard and cut from ponds and lakes in huge blocks, then sawn by hand into correct sizes.

And once we caught on to them using it, we’ve wanted to do it at home, but without all that messy sawing. Buying a Hoshizaki or Kold Draft large cube machine is an option, of course, if you want to spend $3,500, jack up your electric bill and produce enough ice for your entire neighborhood.

Or you can buy some handy molds and follow some basic techniques.

Ice Molds
image via Amazon

A quick ice primer:

  • Small ice cubes and pellets do one job: cool a drink quickly. But they also dilute that drink quickly.
  • Medium-size ice cubes cool slower, but dilute slower, too.
  • Large ice cubes, especially those large spheres now so popular, strike a pretty good balance. They melt and dilute slowly by providing a lot of cold surface area to chill the liquid while maintaining their mass.

When you make ice at home, your biggest challenge will be making it clear. This is important for three reasons. Cloudy ice signals air is trapped within the cube, and where there’s air, there’s fragility. Fragile ice breaks down quicker, and broken ice dilutes drinks. Cloudy ice also can signal potential impurities trapped within as well.

For most, removing all cloudiness at home will be nigh impossible, but you can get at least 65 percent clear ice by following these steps.

  1. Use filtered or distilled water. The first does a fine job of removing particulates and flavors from your tap water, but the latter is the best. The decision depends on whether you want to spend a buck per gallon of water to make ice.
  2. Boil the water before putting it into your ice trays to help it freeze clearer and faster. Take care working with such hot water, of course, but fill the molds while its hot. Hot water resists oxygen penetration as it freezes.
  3. And about those trays: use silicone varieties. They’re amazingly flexible, which makes it easier to get the cubes out of the molds. Since they are so flexible, however, place them on a small sheet pan before filling them. This will stabilize them and make them easy to put into the freezer.
  4. Since you’ll want to have a stash of ice on hand, put the finished cubes in an airtight container with a tight-sealing lid. (I even drape a sheet of plastic wrap between the container’s top edge and the lid to improve that barrier.)
  5. When making a cocktail, remove only the amount of ice you’ll need rather than the whole container. That’ll help keep frost from building up inside your clean container. I don’t know the science of why frost absorbs lots of bad flavors, but it does, and you don’t want that on your ice.
  6. Use it or lose it. Holding onto ice for more than a week is asking for noticeable flavor impartation. One good way to ensure inventory gets rotated quickly is to use proper bartending techniques for your cocktail making. That means you ice twice: Put the ice in a mixing glass first, add your spirit(s), amendments, stir until cold, and then strain that onto fresh ice in a clean glass. While it may seem like a waste of good ice, you’ll definitely notice how much colder that first sip really is.

Visit these websites to find some nifty ice-making tools for home use.

Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine. In 2013, he authored “Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke,” and in 2020, he authored "The Rebirth of Bourbon: Building a Tourism Economy in Small-Town USA." When not writing about food and drink, he leads large-scale, intimate and virtual food and spirits pairings.

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