Most of the world's ice cubes are cloudy, soft, and weak. These hazy rocks are less dense, and they melt faster, leaving your drink watered down and terrible. Plus, opaque ice is just ugly.
A serious drinker deserves better. Good cocktail bars have dense, hard, consistent ice that's as clear as moonshine. So should you.
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. I'd like that drink over a single, giant rock.
What You Do
- 1. Get a small, insulated cooler you can fit inside your freezer.
- 2. Get plastic molds. You'll use these to freeze your chunks of ice. The blue molds in the video are 2 x 2 x 5 inches; if you want cubes, look at these.
- 3. Put the molds into the cooler, arranged into lines.
- 4. Fill the entire cooler with water, so that the molds are flooded. Put the cooler into the freezer with the lid open or removed.
- 5. Wait until the block is frozen all the way through. Yes, it's a slow process. Then remove the cooler and the ice block inside. (If it sticks, let it thaw a little.) Set the block in a clean plastic bucket, and leave it out for an hour or so to let it temper.
- 6. Cut out the molds. Using a serrated knife, carefully score the block in between some molds. Use a mallet on the back of the knife blade to carefully split the ice. If it's starts cracking like crazy, let it temper a little longer.
- 7. Once the molds are free, you should be able to slide the blocks of ice out of them pretty easily. If they don't come out easily, let them warm just a little. The ice that comes out should be almost perfectly clear. There may be some clouding at the top, but this can be cut out using the serrated knife method in the step above.
Why It Works
Some of your friends will tell you that boiling water first is the secret to clear ice. Or double-boiling it. Or using distilled water. Having tried all of those, I can tell you with utter certainty that those techniques do not work. This one does, and the key component is speed.
When ice freezes quickly, air bubbles get trapped within the ice crystals. When ice freezes slowly, the bubbles don't get inside. The best example of this is an icicle. Icicles freeze extremely slowly, and they come out clear as glass. Another example is a lake. Large and slow to freeze, a body of water solidifies as extremely clear ice, aside from a little frost on the top. That's what the cooler does—it creates the lake effect. The insulated walls and the large body of water slows down the whole freezing process. If you do it right, you get ice that is clear as glass.
Do All Bars Do This?
Not exactly. Some high-end cocktail bars do, like Gin Palace (shown in the video above). But they're in the minority. Most bars cocktail bars (that care at least a little about the quality of their ice) are using a machine called the Kold-Draft. It works by gently spraying water upward into ice cube molds where they freeze from the outside in. You can spot these cubes because they're dense, they're almost perfectly square, they're pretty clear (though not glass-quality), and usually you can spot a little divot on one side from where the jet was spraying.
So Why Bother?
Frankly, most people won't, and that's fine. This is serious booze-geek territory. But there is actually a very good reason to do it, other than its obvious beauty.
Not all ice is created equal. Sother Teague gave us this example—bite into an ice cube in a fresh drink. It's hard, and then it shatters like glass. A minute later, if you bite it again, it kind of squishes and squeaks a little. That's the effect of low-density ice. Clear, dense ice, frozen slowly using this lake effect, can last a half hour before it starts to soften up.
But beyond that, custom-frozen giant chunks give a bartender much more creativity and control. What could be better, for example, than a clear sphere of ice? The thing you see in the video is the Cirrus Ice Ball Press. Using gravity to apply pressure, the metal wicks heat, melting the ice in about a minute, which really looks like magic. You're left with a 2.75-inch-diameter, six-ounce sphere of ice. In a rocks glass, it will last you a loooong time—a sphere is the ideal shape for ice to retain its heat. One ball should last you several drinks.
Plus, it just looks really cool. And you can only get it if you start with a perfect chunk of clear ice almost as big as a brick.
So, now you all have a weekend project. May your drinks be colder, drier, and prettier. Check back next week for another alcoriffic Happy Hour.
Sother Teague is a former R&D chef for Alton Brown on Good Eats (Food Network) and instructor at NECI (New England Culinary Institute). He is currently consulting chef at Consulting at Proletariat (a rare, new and unusual beer bar) and the Bourgeois Pig's Brooklyn location. He is also a barman at Amor y Amargo, Prime Meats, and Booker & Dax. Follow him @CreativeDrunk on Twitter.