I’ve been a cocktail geek for twenty years, throwing frequent cocktail parties where I serve everything from classic pre-Prohibition cocktails (my favorites) to even more obscure cocktails I’ve seen served at some of my favorite craft cocktail bars in my city of San Francisco.
In that time, I’ve learned what all good bartenders know: (1) Ice is a critical component of cocktail making, and (2) using the proper ice is as important as using quality ingredients.
Why Ice is So Important
Of course, ice is important for chilling drinks, but it’s far from the only role it plays in making cocktails. Most drinks are either shaken or stirred with ice or served on ice, both of which slightly dilute the drink with water. The trick is that you want some dilution, but not too much, and that amount varies from drink to drink. The size, shape and clarity of the ice also factor into how your drinks will turn out.
Craft Cocktail Bar Secrets to the “Perfect Ice”
This is why many craft cocktail bars have “craft ice programs.” I’ve been to speakeasies in Seattle where they freeze slabs of ice the size of a dining room table, then cut it smaller pieces using a chainsaw and ice picks, and to a bar in New York where they make a spectacle out of using a Cirrus Ice Ball Press to turn a chunk of ice into a perfect sphere like magic in front of your eyes. In Tokyo, I’ve watched a bartender hand-carve wedges of ice into a perfect diamond before branding it with their bar’s logo to chill a rare whiskey.
Unfortunately, I own neither a chain saw nor an ice ball press, but I have picked up many ice-making tips that home bartenders can use to make their best cocktails ever.
Here are my tips:
1. Keep It Cold
Keep your ice in the freezer until the moment you need to use it. Ice that has been sitting in an ice bucket will melt more quickly, so it will dilute your drinks more. It’s also impossible to make consistent drinks when each round is made with ice that has been sitting at room temperature for a different amount of time.
2. Ditch the Bagged Ice
Whatever you do, resist the temptation to use bagged ice from the grocery store in your drinks. Michael Lazar, Beverage Manager and Whiskey Concierge at Hardwater, an American whiskey bar in San Francisco, says that although it’s fine for filling a tub to chill your beer, bagged ice typically consists of chunks of very different sizes and shapes, which means that each piece melts at a different rate. This means you might end up with one bland, watery cocktail followed by one that isn’t diluted enough.
3. Make the Clearest Ice You Can
If you have ever been served a beautiful drink served with a single, perfectly crystalline ice cube, you will appreciate how much it can elevate your drinks from the everyday to the extraordinary. And, not only is clear ice beautiful to look at it, it’s also heavier and denser than cloudy ice because it doesn’t have as much air trapped in it. This means it will melt more slowly and dilute your drinks less.
Craft cocktail bars often have expensive ice machines engineered to make the clearest ice possible, or they freeze their ice in large slabs, allowing them to use the clearer ice around the edges and discard the ice in the middle, where it’s cloudiest (the gas that naturally appears in water gets concentrated in the middle of ice as it freezes from the edges toward the center).
Lazar explains that the more slowly you freeze your ice, the clearer it will be because it gives the gas more time to come out of the water as it freezes. When making ice at home, he sets his freezer to just above the freezing point so the cubes will freeze as slowly as possible. “If you can place your ice tray in a place where it gets very even cooling, that will help as well,” he explains. “You want the cold air to circulate evenly around the tray.” (Of course, he uses his home freezer almost exclusively for making ice. “If you were really serious about ice,” he says, and didn’t want to risk spoiling your food, “you would get a separate freezer.”)
4. Use the Right Size for the Job
Although some drinks, like mint juleps, are traditionally served on crushed ice, because you actually want them to be a bit watered down, most drinks benefit from less dilution. This is why when shaking or stirring most cocktails—from a martini to a Manhattan, a Sidecar to an Aviation—I prefer using medium-size cubes, like the 1 1/2-inch cubes made using the Perfect Ice Cube Tray. Small enough to fit in my cocktail shaker but large enough not to dilute my cocktails too much, they’re the perfect size for many bartending uses – including filling up highball or collins glasses for tall drinks like a Bloody Mary, a mojito or a gin and tonic.
For drinks that require even less dilution— the Old-Fashioned is the classic example—you’ll want to use an even larger cube. For these, I use a 2-inch King Cube. Or, for an even more spectacular presentation, I’ll use a 2 1/2-inch ice sphere made using a mold. Lazar explains, “The perfect shape for creating a low surface-area-to-volume ratio is a sphere,” which is why this is his preferred shape for serving fine whiskeys that he doesn’t want to dilute too much.
Head here to check out our entire ice collection.
Culinary editor Sharron Wood has edited (and taste tested!) thousands of recipes for Williams Sonoma’s catalogs, website and blog. Before joining Williams Sonoma five years ago, she spent 15 years as a freelance cookbook editor, food and travel writer, and restaurant reviewer.
An avid hostess, craft cocktail aficionado and baker, she enjoys entertaining at her San Francisco apartment and cooking as many of Williams Sonoma’s 7,000+ recipes as humanly possible.