A Word About Ice

Most restaurant owners, managers and for that matter many bartenders don’t understand the importance of ice and it’s many forms in making truly great cocktails. A good bartender can make good drinks with any ice and will adjust their shake and stir to regulate dilution. However, a bartender that truly understands dilution, temperature and how it plays into each different style of cocktail, will work wonders when provided with quality ice.
A luxury, ice was first introduced into watering-holes in the 1800’s and it didn’t come from a machine tucked in the corner of a kitchen. When  first mass produced it was frozen in ponds, harvested in the winter months and stored over the summer in insulated warehouses. Delivered to bars in block form, it was up to the barman to make it fit in the glass. This allowed for bartenders to have control over the size and shape of the ice that they used and in turn led to an evolution in cocktail styles and techniques. In order to create cocktails as they were intended to be experienced, one also has to use ice in the proper application.

Block Ice

If you are going to work with block ice you need to be working with clear ice or you are just wasting time and effort. In the 19th century ice was frozen in large ponds and cut out, the directional freezing allowed for perfectly clear ice unlike the cloudy ice that comes out of your trays at home. Why is clear ice important? It melts about five times slower than ice with air trapped in it, this will keep your drink consistent longer and minimize the pool of watery booze and citrus at the bottom of your glass.

There are actually a couple of bars here in Seattle that order 300lb blocks of crystal clear carving ice and break them down every week with a chainsaw. This is a lot of fun, but very impractical and should be left to only the most dedicated ice/cocktail geek. Thanks to the experimentation by Camper English at Alcademics it is fairly easy to freeze your own clear ice at home or in the restaurant. Breaking down the ice into a useable size is fairly simple. First the block needs to be tempered or it will shatter when you try to crack it. Allow it to sit at room temperature for 30-45 minutes.

Once the outside becomes slick mark off the lines where you want your slabs to crack. I use a carpenters square and ice pick to mark a guide line every three inches. Score it about a centimeter deep then tap along the line with your ice pick focusing on the center and a slab will eventually crack off following your marks. Repeat the process until you are down to approximately three by three inch cubes. If you are making punch, this size, or even a bit larger is great for floating in the punch bowl. They will melt very slowly keeping your punch cold and flavorful for long periods of time.

Japanese Ice Balls

The theory: the largest ice cube with the least amount of surface area melts the slowest. The application: one large spherical ice cube will allow you to enjoy chilled whisk(e)y without leaving you with watery remnants before you’re done. Japanese bartenders developed this technique and it is catching on world wide. Sadly, there are many bars and liquor companies promoting the incorrect way to do this, and by that I mean if you aren’t using clear ice for your balls you are doing it wrong. Until you have had whisk(e)y on an ice ball, made the way it was intended, you will not understand the beauty and significance of this technique.
Traditionally one would use an ice pick and chip away corners to form a sphere. I prefer to use a nice sharp knife for carving leaving somewhat of a faceted finish. I find the easiest way is to start is by carving a cylinder. Then finish by rounding off the ends.

Lump or Cubed Ice

For those of you at home, just a couple more pokes with the ice pick and you have the perfect ice for a rocks drinks. For a bar owner this is where you stop with the labor intensive blocks and buy a Kold Draft ice machine: clear, 1×1 inch, super cold, cubes on demand.

Cracked Ice

Slap the back of your lump or cubed ice with a bar spoon to crack the ice into smaller pieces for stirring and shaking cocktails. I like to use a combination of lump and cracked ice when mixing a cocktail, the smaller pieces provide necessary dilution while the larger ones help to cool the liquid.

Crushed Ice

Crushed ice is a necessity for Mint Juleps, Mojitos, Mai Tais and almost anything Tiki. The best crushed ice comes from using a lewis bag and a mallet, it’s the only way to get a great snow-like consistency. Place lump ice into your lewis bag and pound away until all aggression is released.
If you are in a high volume situation this may not be the best option as it’s relatively slow and can be loud during service. Electric ice crushers work great for filling up a divided ice well before service allowing easy access to crushed ice during peak hours.

Ice is the most important tool a bartender has, almost all of our other tools are made to manipulate it. Knowing how to use it is paramount in making great cocktails.

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10 Responses to A Word About Ice

  1. Malia says:

    Hey John!

    What you said about the importance of ice is too true. If any of your local readers are in need, the very best Lewis Bags can be found at mcsology.com… Perhaps I am a little biased, because I’m the one who makes them on behalf of McSology, right here in Seattle. Keep up the great blog, I especially enjoy the pics! 😀

    Cheers, mate!


    • John Ueding says:

      Thanks Malia!

      I’ve seen your bags in use and think they are great! Last time I looked at your Etsy site it said you were out of stock. I’m glad to know they are available, be expecting an order from me before summer rolls around.


  2. Tiare says:

    I wonder where to find a huge wooden mallet if living in Sweden? As it is now i use a big wooden mortar but want that mallet…

    • John Ueding says:

      It’s just a carpenters mallet for tapping the back of a chisel and they are pretty cheap. I ordered mine from mikestools.com. They are made in England so you might be able to find someone a little closer to order one from, or you could check any nearby woodworking supply shops/hardware stores.

      They can be a bit tough on the lewis bag so if you can find a round one it would probably work better, just make sure you stick to wood and not rubber…to much bounce back.

      P.S. I love Tiki and I’m a big fan of your blog!

  3. Mike M. says:

    Hi John,
    I had quick question on how you break down the large ice blocks with a chainsaw. Aren’t most chainsaws self oiling? Is that okay for consumption or do you modify them somehow? And what brand of chainsaw would you recommend?

    Great article!

    • John Ueding says:

      I should start with a disclaimer:

      I don’t recommend using a chainsaw on anything that will be used for consumption. I also don’t recommend using a chainsaw in any manner not consistent with the owners manual.

      With that out of the way.

      I bought a cheapest electric chainsaw I could find and have dedicated it solely for cutting ice. If you use it for anything else it will get in the chain and contaminate your ice. After purchasing I removed the chain and chain guide and hand washed them both in hot soapy water and then washed again in the dishwasher just to make sure there was no leftover oils from manufacturing. I also never filled the chain oil reservoir, cutting ice is like butter for a chainsaw and the blade will constantly be wet with ice cold water when you are cutting so there is little need for any extra lubricant.

  4. Tor says:

    this is great info, useful!

  5. Just Hampton says:

    Great Article John!
    In regards to using both cracked ice and cubed ice when making cocktails; is this technique for just stirred libations? and if you do use cracked ice for shaking cocktails do you have a special technique for shaking and how long are you shaking them for?



    • John Ueding says:

      Thanks! Dilution happens a lot faster when shaking and you want to be able to shake hard and for a while to make a good cocktail so I only use the larger cubes and not the cracked ice. Using the cracked ice will make for a watered down cocktail if shaken correctly.

      As for shaking a lot of bartenders use a technique called the ‘hard shake’ but I just shake like I learned years ago. Two hands on the shaker, one securing the top and on the bottom to keep the shaker from splitting apart. Shake as hard as possible 20-30 times. The time shaken is somewhat relative because there are several variables in effect. You just kind of have to practice and find what works for you. If the cocktail comes out to thick or heavy shake longer, if it tastes weak and watery don’t shake so long.


  6. Mony says:

    Now I know what is in the cloudy part of the ice.

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