Home Ingredients Ice Making

Ice For Cocktails

This public domain photo demonstrates how difficult it was to get ice, having to harvest it from frozen rivers, icebergs, or mountains.

Back in the 1890s, harvesting ice was the only way to get it.

This guide shows you how to get better tasting ice. The ideal ice cube size. How much ice per person is needed for parties. How long to stir, or shake, for proper chilling and dilution. How to make crushed and cracked ice.

Quick History of Ice

Ice is an essential cocktail ingredient. It cools the drink to near freezing temperatures. It dilutes the drink, making it taste more pleasant. It opens up the aroma and frees up flavor molecules.

Prior to the invention of refrigeration, the only way to get ice was to harvest it from natural sources. It meant trekking to icebergs, glaciers and mountains, or cutting frozen lake water in winter.

The ice was then transported and stored in large commercial warehouses throughout the summer months. From there it got delivered by the iceman to the consumer, for use in their cold closets, ice boxes and cocktails.

As cities began to grow, the local ice sources became polluted. This caused the breweries to complain about tainted ice. The press picked up the story and made the public aware of the germs, which caused a lot of concern.

(Ever smelled a cooler after a tailgating party, or a weekend of camping? It picked up some pretty funky odors. Now imagine back 1850 when local lake ice was kept for 8–10 months, before being delivered to the consumer!)

The pollution made ice harvesting illegal in many areas and forced the ice harvesters to go further out, which meant transporting the ice great distances, driving up the cost. It was this desperate need for reliable refrigeration, that drove hundreds of people to file patents and strive to create a solution.

Thanks to advances in electricity and refrigeration, reliable commercial solutions started appearing around 1865. Some of the early adopters were the railways, ships and the breweries. A few years later, massive ice houses started appearing, using refrigerators and freezing local drinking water, as a way to provide people with a safe and reliable source of ice.

Finally around the 1930s the chemicals used for refrigeration became much less dangerous. The cooling units also shrank in size as the ‘fridge’ began appearing in homes of the wealthy. By 1940 the freezer compartment was added and that wonderful ice, a luxury item in the past, became commonplace in every home by the mid 1950s.

Better Tasting Ice

These days, everyone can have clean and sanitary ice, thanks to the city water supply. The chlorine acts as a disinfectant which makes the water safe, but it’s a very noticeable smell, unless filtered out or boiled off. There’s also minerals and dissolved solids that affect the smell and taste of the water.

Some areas like the Pacific northwest have an abundance of pure ‘soft’ water, that’s low in minerals and light in scent. Cities in the middle of the continent, have ‘hard’ water that’s high in dissolved solids, which can give the water a funky taste. Other cities pump their water from deep underground, or store it for months in reservoirs, both of which can degrade the water quality.

The best tasting ice is pure. Pure ice means better flavor. The only way to get it, is to start with water that’s free of dissolved solids and odors. The best way to do that, without resorting to bottled stuff, is to filter the tap water.

Some of the new water filters on the market, like ZeroWater can reduce the dissolved solids and perceived odors to near zero. Others like the trusty Brita filter can reduce the amount of chlorine, particulates and pharmaceuticals in the water. Either would make a good choice, if you want your ice to taste better and be more clear in color.

If filtering isn’t an option, try boiling your water and letting it cool. Some people swear by it. Some boil it twice. Some use only distilled water, which seems a little excessive, but it does demonstrate the lengths that people will go to for pure ice.

Making Crushed Ice

Back in the day, the only way to get crushed ice was to make it yourself. It involved a strong canvas sac known as a Lewis Bag, a heavy wooden mallet, and lots of hammering on a hard surface, for each cocktail that you wanted to make.

These days you can buy an electric, or portable hand-crank, ice crusher in the fifty dollar range. The better ones are adjustable so they can provide grinds from coarse to fine. These units are not ice shavers for making slushy snow cones, but dry crushers that produce small random ice chunks for use in cocktails.

Making Powdered Ice

If you have high powered blender like a Vitamix, or a Blendtec, you can start with whole ice cubes and have powdered ice in 10 seconds or less. The Vitamix suggests adding enough water to raise the ice off the blades before crushing. This results in a wet crush that’s best drained through sieve before using. The Blendtec doesn’t need to use water, resulting in a dry powdery crush.

If you don’t have a Vitamix or Blendtec, your blender may not have the power to crush ice. Check your blender manual before you start. If you don’t need to crush ice, but want to make slushy cocktails like frozen Strawberry Daiquiris, a regular blender should work just fine.

How Much Dilution for Cocktails

A good cocktail ice cube is about 1 to 1.5 inches (3–4 cm). It achieves a balance between chilling and diluting the drink. Bigger cubes over chill, then melt too slowly for proper dilution, which is fine for whisky on the rocks, but not for cocktails. Smaller pellet cubes from the typical fridge melt too fast, throwing the flavor out of balance, by watering down the drink.

How much dilution depends on your personal taste. The longer you shake or stir a cocktail the more dilution you get, until you hit the point where the drink is the same temperature as the ice, where no further dilution occurs. Ideally this is from 20-30% water content on average for any given cocktail.

Many professional whisky tasters use room temperature distilled water to dilute a spirit by 20% before tasting it. If the whisky is under 15 years old, most add water before tasting it. If it’s 15 or older, they taste it neat first. Then add water for the second sip.

How Much Ice Per Person

For entertaining, the general rule is two cocktails per guest in the first hour, then one per hour after that. So if the party lasts 5 hours, you’ll need enough ice for 6 cocktails per person. Each cocktail takes 7-10 cubes, so that’s a 42-60 ice cubes per person.

For sake of example, let’s take a standard ice cube tray that you can find just about everywhere, the OXO Good Grips with cover. It makes 14 cubes per tray. If you used the minimum 7 cubes per cocktail, each person would need three trays of ice.

That means if you only have two ice cube trays, you’d have to start making your ice at least two weeks in advance. If you fill them once per day, it would take 15 days to make enough ice to entertain 10 guests over a 5 hour period.

So if you don’t have at least 6–8 ice cube trays, you’ll have to get more of them, or else your ice won’t be fresh. Either that, or hit the supermarket, or local gas station (yuck) for your ice. Then there’s the burden of carrying that big, heavy, sweaty sack back home, which is not a very pleasant experience.

Ice Making Machines

If you don’t want to buy more ice cube trays, or hit the gas station for ice, there is a solution. Get a portable, countertop ice maker. They are a handy addition to any home bar, RV, or backyard party.

Most of the counter top ice makers can generate 15-25 pounds of ice per day. You just add filtered water to the top and it does the rest. The only downside is that they don’t keep the ice frozen after its made. You still need to transfer it to the freezer.

The next step up for serious entertaining, is the under counter ice maker, that keeps the ice frozen after making it. This is a great piece of gear for any man cave. It’s essential if you have a wet bar in your home and do a lot of cocktail parties, BBQs or back yard events. That way you can focus on the cocktails and the guests, knowing that the ice will always be there when you need it.


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