How to Make Perfect Cocktail Ice with a Pair of Jeans

published May 10, 2012

I was born in LA in the seventies which meant, among other things, there were margaritas, a cedar hot tub, and Eagles and Steely Dan records playing a lot at our house.

I remember my dad in bell-bottom jeans with woven Guatemalan belts and tied his hair back with a scrap of leather while letting his massive beard spread across his chest. My mom also wore flared jeans, hers high-waisted, with flouncy pastel tops and long silky blown-out hair. If you are over a certain age, these are probably familiar images.

I was the kind of kid who was free to get dirty, play car on upturned pots and pans, and to truly experience being bored, meaning I didn’t always have “something to do.” This is what I partially credit for having so many deep food and cooking memories. I wasn’t in the other room watching television; I was watching my parents, taking in how they lived life in the kitchen.

An early, very visceral memory, is of the way my dad smashed ice for drinks.

In the laundry room, tucked in a drawer with the batteries and a measuring tape, my dad kept a blue denim bag that my mom sewed from an old Levi’s pant leg. He would fill the bag with cubed ice and then take it out to the pink concrete patio and smash the heck out of it with a big wooden mallet my grandfather fashioned out of a bowling pin. The ice was usually destined for margaritas, including a “version” (as opposed to “virgin”) one for me. It was unevenly crushed; some big pieces, some like ice dust. Perfectly imperfect, it made for a fine drink.

For some strange reason it has taken me almost twenty years of being out of the house to make my own cocktail ice smashing bag. Last weekend someone brought me a bottle of rye and I was struggling with the ice question — one I usually solve by buying a bag at the corner deli and smashing it agressively on my kitchen floor — and I started missing my parents.

Like a memory getting dislodged, I remembered my dad’s ice bag.

I found an old pair of jeans and dusted off the sewing machine. I cut four somewhat equal pieces of fabric off the jeans and in about ten minutes I had my own ice bag and three to give away.

Dad said the whole thing is pretty elementary. He used to twist a towel around a handful of ice but the towel would often rip. Mom suggested the Levis. “You know Levis were made for railroad workers and miners, so they can stand up to the ice,” Dad told me this week. These days he uses a rubber mallet because “it’s easier on the jeans.”

Still, I’d do anything to have that bowling pin mallet in my arsenal. For now I use the side of my meat tenderizer. Yes, it’s clean, and yes, the jeans are clean too. One could argue that the washes and dyes used in denim and not things you want pounded into your cocktail ice. There are similar arguments to be made for a mallet used to pound raw meat. Thank you, these points are well-taken. Luckily I don’t drink liquor very often, but when I do, I like it strong, so I figure it all balances out in the end.

Sometimes keeping memories alive is worth the risk.

How to Make a Denim Ice Smashing Bag

Find an old pair of jeans. Measuring from the bottom hem, cut off about 15-inches of the leg. Turn the fabric inside out. Either by hand or with a machine, sew up the bottom end. Obviously, to make two bags, use the other leg. To make four, slice off two more cylinders, making your way — pardon me for the graphic — with the scissors, up to the crotch for the final cut and chose one end to seal with stitches.

To ensure a seal (and because it makes me feel like I know how to sew) you can make some diagonal stitches across each side. Any experienced sewer will say this does nothing; it was simply my way of adding a little loving flourish to the bag, and to listen to the hum of the sewing machine just a little bit longer. This is a sewing project just about anyone can handle: nothing matters, from the color of the thread to how straight your stitches are. Just make sure you sew all the way across.

To finish, trim any long pieces of thread, turn the bag right side out, and wash in hot water.

Which Ice for Which Drinks?

Maureen Petrosky, our cocktails columnist, has this to say about cocktail ice:

1. If a drink is shaken use cubes and if it is stirred use cracked ice.
2. The point of the ice is to chill the drink and not water it down.

Tons of experimentation and lots of shaking and stirring among the experts have proven that point #1 is the most efficient way to cool each category of drink without watering them down.

(images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan except final image, unknown)