Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ice (Yes, Ice)

updated Jul 16, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Whether you’re making a fancy martini or throwing together a pitcher of margaritas or sangria, the one thing you’ll need anytime you’re making cocktails (alcoholic or not) is ice. And ice can come in many different forms — from a standard ice cube tray, big bags at the grocery store, or those fancy cubes or spheres that come out of silicone molds. But does the shape or kind of ice that you use really matter? Let’s walk through what ice does to our drinks and see how the right kind of ice can easily take your home cocktail game up a notch.

You may have seen perfectly clear ice or interesting shapes at fancy cocktail bars, but those are next-level cocktail techniques (more on that later!) perfected by bartenders and truly obsessed home bartenders. Let’s instead go back to basics on the role of ice first. Yes, ice makes drinks cold, but it’s so, so much more. Ice is actually an ingredient in cocktails just as much as the spirits, bitters, juices, or other ingredients. 

First, What Does Ice Actually Do in Cocktails?

How is ice an ingredient? It has a dual role: It brings the temperature of a drink way down, making it more refreshing, and it dilutes and helps bring out flavors and balance out what you’re tasting. That sounds a bit counterintuitive, but think of it this way: Our taste buds have difficulty detecting anything but extreme, bitter alcoholic flavors when tasting spirits straight-up since the alcohol content is so high. Adding ice means you’re adding water as it starts to melt, and this “dilution brings down the harsher flavors for you to taste,” says Shaher Misif, bartender and operator of 1217 Sutter in San Francisco. For example, a negroni is not just equal parts Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth — the water in there that comes from melting ice is just as important in making a balanced drink.

4 Ice Shapes and What They Do

So now that you know what ice does in a drink, does shape matter? Very simply, yes, shape matters. A large block of ice melts more slowly than tiny pieces of shaved ice, which affects the dilution of a drink. Different shapes also feel different in your mouth and affect how your cocktail looks in the glass.

For the home bartender, here are a few shapes of ice that you can easily make or buy, and how to use them.

1. Ice tray ice: The cubes from a standard ice cube tray work for most drinks, with their size and shape melting easily when you’re shaking or stirring. It’s perfectly fine to just have this type of ice — just make sure you have a lot of it!

2. Party ice: This type of cracked ice is what you find in bags at the grocery store or ice machines at hotels is smaller than standard tray ice, and it melts a little faster too. Quality can vary depending on how much air is trapped in it and how well it’s been handled and stored. It’s also about the same size as the standard ice used at bars.

3. Crushed ice: These small, pebble-like pieces of ice are most often packed into tiki and swizzle drinks, and they offer high, quick dilution to these sweet, ingredient-heavy cocktails. You can crush ice by putting it into a bag and whacking at it with a mallet, which results in more irregular pieces, or you can buy it if you want something more uniform. In Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, Martin Cate suggests going “to your local meat or fish counter and ask them nicely (and offer a little cash) to fill up a cooler for you.” And did you know you can also buy crushed ice at the fast food chain Sonic?

4. Large cubes or spheres: If you like spirit-forward drinks, invest in silicone molds that make large cubes or spheres. These are the slowest ice cubes to melt due to their size, so you can sip slowly and not worry about your drink watering down quickly. It’s worth mentioning that you should use regular ice cubes for shaking or stirring the cocktail together to get enough dilution, then pour over the cube or sphere in the glass (and make sure your cocktail glass is wide enough to accommodate a big rock).

Best large ice cube trays: FROST Silicone Everyday Ice Trays, $10 at Target

What About Clear Ice?

Perfectly clear ice has been the obsession of many a professional bartender, but do you really need it for home cocktails? The cloudiness you see in most ice cubes come from impurities in the water. These tiny impurities can affect the flavor of the ice, but in my opinion, really can’t be detected by most people. If you want the purest flavor, you can use distilled water, but some impurities from the air can still settle into the ice as it freezes. (If you really want to go down the clear ice rabbit hole, check out cocktail and spirit writer Camper English’s Alcademics blog, which documents all his experimenting and instructions for making clear ice.)

Instead of obsessing about perfectly clear ice cubes, Misif recommends focusing on the water itself. He says to “just make ice cubes from the water you normally drink,” be it tap water, water from a filtration system, or another source. If you like the flavor of what you drink normally, then the ice will taste like what you’re used to.

Making and Storing Ice

Now we come to the really practical part about ice: making and storing it. Remember that ice easily absorbs any flavors around it, so take a quick inventory of your freezer: Do you have any uncovered food in there? If so, it will impart unwanted flavors into the ice, so get that food bagged up or toss it if it’s old.

Next comes storing the ice once it’s made. And no, you don’t want to just leave the ice in the trays or in your ice machine (unless you invest in an ice cube tray with a cover). Over time, ice can evaporate it left uncovered, leaving you with measly pieces that are not great for cocktails. Transfer the ice to a zip-top bag or closed container instead to prevent evaporation. This is worth doing even if you have an ice machine, as ice that builds up in those trays will eventually fuse together into one big block that’s impossible to chip away at.

Unless you only make one drink at a time, having one tray of ice cubes in your freezer just doesn’t cut it. You need lots of ice to properly make drinks, both for the shaking or stirring and for the serving. If you don’t have an ice machine, take the time and energy to make a few trays of ice, transferring them as they’re ready into a freezer bag. You can’t be skimpy on ice when making cocktails, and since it takes time to make ice, you want to be prepared for when the cocktail craving strikes.

Having people over for drinks? Start a few days out and make a couple of bags of ice beforehand (or pick some up at the store) so that you’re in no danger of running out. Trust me — no one wants a tepid drink. If you’re making a punch, make a big block of ice in a Bundt cake pan or Tupperware-style container for it.

How to Up Your Ice Game

If you’ve got the ice basics down, Misif’s tip for next-level ice is simple: Have fun with flavorings. For example, try freezing passion fruit juice into cubes and throwing them into margaritas, which is also a great way to preserve leftover ingredients. Not only will these cubes keep your drink cold, but they’ll also add a nice burst of flavor as they melt into the cocktail.

Whether you just have ice cube trays or a fancy ice machine, the main takeaways about ice and cocktails are to make ice out of water you like the taste of, and always have plenty of it ready to go. Have fun shaking and stirring, and cheers to your next happy hour!