Ice is one of the most important ingredients in cocktail making. It must be respected and kept clean. The cold water dilution that ice provides when stirring or shaking a cocktail is essential to the taste of a cocktail.
In 1883, Mark Twain published Life on the Mississippi and on page 117 he says, “In my time, ice was jewelry; none but the rich could wear it. But anybody and everybody can have it now.”
In the early 1800s, a twenty-three-year-old businessman from Boston named Frederic Tudor looked out on a white frozen pond and saw nothing but green. Tudor became the “Boston Ice King” and he soon learned that harvesting ice from lakes and ponds proved to be an extremely labor-intensive business. Workers dealt with freezing temperatures, sharp tools, heavy blocks of ice, and methods of keeping the blocks from melting. Ice in the first part of the 1800s was only available to the wealthy—like Twain said—but by the 1850s it grew into a commodity. Tudor transported ice to many places around the world—creating the ice trade. And since water freezes on lakes and ponds in many more places than just Northeast America, it didn’t take long for other ice harvesting companies to open.
By the 1800s some warm Southern cities built artificial ice factories. Twain gives us a glimpse of the past (in his book) through his observations of visiting a New Orleans ice factory:
“Sunk into the floor were numberless tin boxes, a foot square and two feet long, and open at the top end. These were full of clear water; and around each box, salt and other proper stuff was packed; also, the ammonia gases were applied to the water in some way which will always remain a secret to me, because I was not able to understand the process. While the water in the boxes gradually froze, men gave it a stir or two with a stick occasionally—to liberate the air-bubbles, I think. Other men were continually lifting out boxes whose contents had become hard frozen. They gave the box a single dip into a vat of boiling water, to melt the block of ice free from its tin coffin, then they shot the block out upon a platform car, and it was ready for market.”
Twain goes on to describe how some of the clear blocks of ice have items frozen inside such as bouquets of flowers, French dolls with satin dresses, and other pretty items that were placed on platters in the center of dinner tables to cool the room.
In 1889 and 1890, America had record-breaking warm winters and ice harvesting came to a dead stop. By 1900, there were almost 1,000 ice plants in America delivering to bars, grocers, and homes. Ice was delivered in the form of ice blocks; then the buyer could chip, shave, or hand-saw it.
Today, we have commercial ice machines, and since the start of the current cocktail revolution, there has been a demand for blocked ice in craft bars—so small boutique ice shops have popped up. One good example is Favourite Ice, the first custom ice company in Washington, DC, which is headed up by Joseph Ambrose and Caleb Marindin. They provide special cut ice to many craft bars in the DC area.
Types of Ice
Many craft bars today have “ice programs.”
This means that they produce and offer a variety type of ice. The ice can come from a machine or molds, or be handmade. Types include crushed ice, pebbled ice, shaved ice, ice spheres (balls), large cubed ice, cylinder ice, ice blocks, and of course, whatever else the imagination will spark.
Crushed ice is like the ice you would use to make a snow cone. A variety of machines costing anywhere from twenty dollars to two thousand dollars can be used to crush ice. Some bartenders use a “Lewis” canvas bag to make crushed ice. You place ice into the bag and then bang on it with a mallet until the ice is crushed.
Pebbled ice is also called pellet and nugget ice. It is soft little pieces of ice. The best comes from a machine and the best place to buy it is at your local Sonic Drive-In. They use the ice for their famous slushies and sell ten-pound bags of it for one dollar. I know this because I have bought several hundred bags in my lifetime. When using it for cocktails, it is best to add this ice last or the alcohol and ingredients will melt it down too fast.
Shaved ice is just what it sounds like. A sharp blade shaves the surface of the ice, which results in a soft and very fine snow-white fluffy ice. New Orleans is famous for their Snow Balls that use this type of ice. The liquid ingredients do not sink to the bottom like in a snow cone; rather they become part of the ice.
The ice sphere (ball) was created in Japan. In Japan, ice is highly respected. Most bars do not own ice machines; they rely on ice delivery service, then cut the ice into small blocks. Around 2005, the ice sphere became the most famous shape that Japanese bartenders would make. They made it by hand with an ice pick and took between five and seven minutes. Videos can be seen on YouTube. By 2010, Americans began to make ice ball molds that anyone could purchase. They can be easily found by googling. Alternatively, in a pinch, you can fill up water balloons and freeze them by keeping their form the roundest you can.
In 2008, Roberto Sequeira from San Francisco launched the first luxury high-quality ice company, Gläce Luxury Ice , offering ice spheres (balls) and large cubes delivered to your door. Today, they supply luxury ice to Disneyland, Hilton Properties, Avia Hotels, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and the Pebble Beach Resorts.
Large Cubed Ice
One-inch cubes are the most popular cubed size. They make expensive commercial machines or you can purchase silicone molds. Again, the same science applies in that this ice dilutes less water into your drink.
Cylinder ice is long cylinder–shaped to fit down into a tall glass.
This is where it all started. Many craft bars like to have a block of ice visible so you can watch bartenders use an ice pick to chip off ice for your drink—like in the old days. Bartenders will also take the block and cut it down into different-sized square shapes for a variety of glasses and cocktails.
You can make your own ice creations at home by using various molds, ice trays, recycled items, and various other things found around the kitchen.
Homemade Crushed Ice
If you don’t have a crushed ice machine, you can place ice in the center of a cloth napkin or kitchen towel, wrap it up, and then whack on it with a mallet or something heavy with a handle. Just be careful not to hit your fingers.
Silicone Ice Trays and Molds
This is the easiest way to make fun-shaped ice. Silicone ice trays and molds come in a variety of shapes. Always buy large shapes because the small ones melt very fast in a drink. You can even flavor your ice by freezing juices and other mixers such as coconut water, cucumber water, coffee, ginger beer, or whatever you want. You can also add flowers, candy, pieces of fruit, or anything else that sparks your imagination.
Homemade Ice Blocks
A block of ice can be used in a punch bowl to keep the punch cold. Just recycle a half-gallon milk or juice carton by cutting off the top. Clean the container, fill it with water, and then freeze. When you need the block of ice, rip the paper carton off and place it in the punch bowl. You can also freeze juice or a mixer that is in the punch, so the block only melts mixer in the bowl and does not dilute the punch with water.
Another way to use the paper cartons is to set a bottle of liquor or liqueur of your choice into the carton, then fill two-thirds with water and freeze. When frozen, tear away the paper and you have a block of ice around a bottle. Throughout the freezing stages, you can add sliced fruit, herbs, flowers, or anything you want.
The Glass Is Half Full
In 2014, I came up with what I call the “glass is half full” technique. I didn’t want to spend any money on molds, so I boiled distilled water and filled up Old-Fashioned glasses half with water. I then covered the glasses with plastic wrap and kept them in the freezer until needed. When ready, I removed a glass from the freezer, discarded the plastic, and strained the cocktail on top of the ice. To take it a step further I purchased lighted coasters to present the cocktail.
On a small scale, you can make almost clear ice by purchasing distilled water then boiling it three times. Just bring it to a boil, shut it off to cool, and then repeat the process. Use this water to fill ice cubes trays, ice ball molds, etc.
On a large scale—without getting a local company involved—you can make your own clear block of ice using the directional freezing technique that was created in 2009 by popular drinks writer and blogger Camper English. Items you will need are: a large hard-sided Igloo cooler, a large reach-in freezer (like the kind your parents kept on the back porch), water, a handsaw, a hammer, a chisel, and a good pair of rubber gloves. Directional freezing is a simple method to make crystal clear ice by controlling the direction that water freezes.
The simplest (and original) way to make a clear ice block by directional freezing is to fill a hard-sided picnic cooler with water, place it into a freezer, and allow it to freeze with the cooler's top off. The water will only freeze into ice from the top-down, and only the last 25 percent or so of the ice block that forms will be cloudy. If the block is removed from the freezer before this point, one will have a perfectly clear slab of ice. Otherwise, the bottom cloudy portion of the ice block can be cut off from the clear part.