I’ve recently become more interested in ice.
In fact that’s not true. I’ve long been interested in ice, but feel that there is more widespread appreciation amongst drinkers as well as bartenders these days, and that it might be fun to play with our water to a greater degree. With that in mind, here are a few of my thoughts on ice…
My rather simplistic view is that there are three main schools of thought when it comes to ice:
1) That it replaces some of the mixer in my drink, therefore I am getting a raw deal and should ask for less of it. It’s also watering down my liquor.
2) That ice is a requirement in my drink, dilutes it and makes a nice noise in a cocktail shaker, but I haven’t given it much thought beyond that; that the drink is slightly diluted is a good thing.
3) That the ice in my drink is almost as important as my choice of spirit and needs to be handled with some degree of know-how. Using mediocre ice is like putting bottled lime juice in my daiquiri.
The first of these schools is rarely found at a decent drinking establishment, but does occasionally wander in when other establishments aren’t obvious. The individuals might well complain about the prices, and object to the inclusion of fruit/bitters/women into the bar environment. We shall politely refer to them as the traditionalists.
The second school (or university at this point) contains most cocktail and spirit drinkers the world over. We appreciate that the ice obviously affects the temperature, and that different drinks ideally need different temperatures (a frozen whisky will be rather bland, a lukewarm martini downright unpalatable). We largely choose to drink our whisky straight (or with water of the liquid variety) and our whiskey with a couple of cubes of ice to take the bite off. We like our martinis stirred and our margaritas shaken (very) hard and served up. Watery shards of ice from a bucket that’s been sitting on the bar all evening don’t really cut the mustard and leave your Manhattan waist deep in the Hudson.
Finally we have the doctorate students of solid H2O; the freeze experts. The majority of these blue-handed individuals live in Japan, a country that takes its cubes very very seriously, and where the ability to carve a perfect sphere of crystal-clear cold stuff is considered enough to get you on to one of Simon Cowell’s money-spinners. Excitingly, some of this expertise has spread out of Asia and can now be seen in specialist bars in London or New York. It’s not just sphere-shaping that’s involved here. Super-large ice cubes, rods, shaved ice and crystal cuts that Swarovski would be proud of are all made with a variety of carving tools that would make a sculptor jealous. The Japanese even have a magazine dedicated to this art. But that’s just the decorative aspect. The origin of the form lies more in the characteristics that the ice imparts to the drink than the prettiness itself. Take three examples:
1) ‘wet’ ice from a mediocre ice-maker (for example the kind that makes those annoyingly-shaped cubes that you can fit your thumb inside). This melts on contact with the spirit, rapidly diluting it and leaving funny crunchy bits in your drink. If you don’t inhale your G&T, it’s flat and insipid.
2) Shaved ice, scraped off a large block. This ice will be super-cool as the large block has a small surface-area to volume ratio and remains colder for longer. Very cold shaved ice will cool a drink very rapidly, and while it will initially melt quickly, it’s so cold that it will largely remain frozen. This makes for a wonderful caipirinha or flash-frozen Mojito. It’s great for rapidly cooling a Sazerac glass or crisping up a Crusta.
3) A sphere of clear ice carved from a big block or at least a large chunk. Again very cold, but retains its low surface area. This means it cools, but doesn’t melt nearly as quickly as standard cubes. Ideal for cooling your drink without too much dilution.
So why are we having to re-learn the methodologies behind ice? To cut a long story short, we got lazy – or practical depending on your view. The ‘wet’ ice described above is produced at a rate of 10kg an hour. A reasonably small machine can therefore keep a small bar in ice all night. Those large surface area cubes freeze quickly, but also melt quickly. The larger the cube, the longer it takes to freeze and therefore the bigger, more powerful machine you need to make it, and the bigger the storage bin you need to keep enough for the night. Large blocks of ice would take a day or so to freeze properly (in order to produce clear ice, you have to slowly cool down the block from one side in order to force dissolved gasses and impurities into one end which you can then remove), and production cannot be easily ramped up on a busy night – less of an issue in Japan where cocktail bars tend to be smaller and customers enjoy waiting for the carving performance.
Is there a happy medium? Whilst I love a huge sphere, decent-sized cubes go a long way to improving my night. If you’re just making ice at home? Slowly freezing a bottle of mineral water wrapped in a sweater produces lovely clear ice. Hit it hard with a spoon and you get perfect (ly random) chunks for a much-improved G&T.