Cubes, spheres, pebbles or rocks — frozen water is elevating the cocktail
On Jan. 13, 1205, the temperature in London dropped so low the Thames froze thick enough to walk over and ale and wine in warehouses turned to solid ice and were sold by weight until they finally thawed.
From that day forward, the British regarded Jan. 13 as the coldest day of the year. As a historical side note, however, it was another 750 years before the British allowed ice in their cocktails.
The penchant for making cocktails with ice has always been peculiarly American. Even today, American tourists in Europe and Great Britain are surprised at the stingy use of ice.
An American tourist in Scotland once requested a few cubes in his whiskey. The bartender cautiously slipped the drink under the bar, added two cubes and surreptitiously handed it back.
“If the others see what I’ve done, they’ll run me out of here,” he told the bemused offender.
In his book, “The Craft of the Cocktail,” Dale DeGroff wrote: “Ice is the soul of the American cocktail.” He explains how icing drinks caught on as colonists adapted to the temperature extremes in their new land, saving the ice of winter to soften the heat of summer.
By the time the colonies broke with England, punches and other alcoholic beverages were almost always served cold and/or with ice.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries — before Prohibition — cocktail recipes not only called for specific amounts of alcohol, mixers and garnishes, they also specified the kinds of ice. Punches called for blocks. Other drinks called for cubes, and others for shaved or cracked ice.
Ice was a valued and sometimes expensive luxury, so it was never wasted and always used for maximum effect. Bartenders of the day learned what kind of ice best chilled and preserved a drink, which often was not an inexpensive purchase either.
But looming on the horizon was progress. What polyester did to cotton, what Naugahyde did to leather and what pumpkin spice did to everything it touched, the automatic ice maker did to cocktail ice.
Ice is added to a cocktail to chill it. Depending on the drink, though, the dilution makes the difference between a perfect cocktail and a watery one. And there’s more magic in the ice as well.
To illustrate this, DeGroff suggests putting a bottle of gin in the freezer and a bottle of vermouth, along with some olives, in the refrigerator. When everything, including the glasses, is properly chilled, make a martini without using ice. What you’ll taste will not resemble a martini, he wrote.
Bruising the gin — shaking it with ice — mellows the alcohol burn and opens “flavors and aromas that would be missed otherwise.”
Any ice will dilute a drink to some degree, since it has to be melting to be chilling. The more surface area there is on a piece of ice, however, the more it chills and the less it dilutes.
Not that long ago, people had ice trays. These produced cubes of solid ice that chilled beautifully and melted slowly.
Along came ice makers with quarter-moon shaped cubes, discs or squared cubes with holes in them, ending the days of laboring with ice trays. Cocktail recipes began calling for just ice or crushed ice. Most American imbibers quietly went along, assuming their taste buds had grown dull or, like many things, old pleasures had lost some of their spark.
Recently, however, a growing number of mixologists, cocktail lovers and makers of bar things began to ask whether any old piece of frozen water was OK for something so important to every American cocktail.
The consensus was no, and they began devising ways to make good ice, not the least of which was reinventing the ice tray.
“There has been a real increased awareness about the kind of ice they make,” said Alicia Cahill, owner of The Kitchen Chick, a kitchen and cooking supply store in downtown Galveston. “People want to duplicate what they are seeing in bars and restaurants.”
There are five basic kinds of cocktail ice, each used in specific kinds of drinks.
The first and most familiar is the cube, which a lot of people today remember getting by pulling a handle on an aluminum ice tray and then freeing the cubes from the metal slats. Modernization also has provided silicone or flexible rubber trays that freeze fast and easily eject the cubes.
These cubes are perfect in shaken cocktails such as martinis and in drinks that are stirred, then poured. They also are used in cola and fruity cocktails.
“Rocks” are much larger than regular ice cubes, chill quickly and dilute much more slowly. They are ideal for any drink “on the rocks,” thus the name. This ice is easily had by purchasing special trays recognizable by the larger containers. Each tray usually makes six cubes about 2 inches square.
Another style of rocks ice came from the Japanese, whose whiskeys are now among the world’s best. The Japanese preferred chilling their drinks with perfectly round balls of ice. Others agreed, and the ice-ball tray was created. Many lovers of fine whiskey swear by the frigid spheres and many models of trays are available, including a copper, single ball maker selling for about $500. Rubberized trays are less than $10.
Less common, but gaining popularity, is shard or Collins or bottleneck ice, which is usually a little less than an inch square and about 5 inches long. Its calling is the highball glass in which drinks such as the Tom Collins are usually served. The shape allows the entire contents of the glass to chill at the same time, as opposed to the bottom chilling, while the top dilutes. The slender ice also is promoted to slip into long-neck bottles, chilling the drink without using a glass or cup.
Anyone who spends a Southern summer relishing mint juleps or who revels in the coastal fun of Tiki drinks knows the importance of pebble, shaved or crushed ice in making the cocktails what they are. Pebble ice is from special ice makers that many bars use or from mini ice trays. Ice served in Europe for almost any drink is usually pebble ice.
Shaved or crushed ice serves much the same purpose and is pretty much just crushed ice cubes. While it does chill, it also dilutes more quickly, which is actually better for sweet and fruity drinks.
All of these styles of trays are available online and at retail stores such as The Kitchen Chick.
“The sphere shape and the larger cubes are what we get the most requests for,” Cahill said, although interest in the others is increasing. “I think most of this is coming because of the popularity of the craft cocktail movement. People are having fun with it.”
Finally, there’s punch ice — a block the size of a small loaf that floats in the punch bowl, challenging guests to drink all the punch before it melts. Imaginative entertainers sometimes freeze fruit, flowers or other colorful edibles in the block. It adds color and, as it melts, new flavors.
Speaking of flavors, ice can add more to a cocktail than just coolness. Steeping herbs such as rosemary or mint in the water to be frozen can add a little extra zip to a gin and tonic or a tequila and soda.
The uncanny ability of ice to absorb flavors demands a cautionary note — never keep ice trays near the frozen fish.
There’s debate about whether the water makes a difference in the ice. Some insist on distilled water or even naturally carbonated water that has been allowed to go flat. Others say simply, don’t use water you won’t drink.
For nearly a century, ice has been an afterthought in cocktail making. Fortunately, in the world of cocktails, a new ice age has finally begun.