The Most Important Cocktail Ingredient

Manual Ice Maker. No Food Allowed.

About once a week I spend time in the kitchen cutting down a block of ice to use in the cocktails I will make that week. The ice itself takes about three days to freeze solid and an hour or so to temper to a point that it will allow handling. If the ice is not left to rest it will shatter like glass. For as long as I can remember there has been nothing in my freezer other than water/ice in various stages of this process. I do keep cocktail glasses off to the side and a bottle of gin or two in the door rack. Certainly no food or leftovers, yet from time to time I will find a quart of chocolate ice cream stashed by my wife.

The steps are simple:

  • Fill a hard sided cooler with water out of the tap.
  • Remove the lid and toss it. You will never use for this process.
  • Place the filled cooler in the center of the freezer for two to three days.
  • Remove the cooler and place upside down on a cutting board
  • Let the block of ice slide out onto the board.
  • The ice will become shiny and wet over the next hour as it comes to temperature.
  • Using a clean bread knife and a mallet remove the cloudy bottom quarter of the ice block.
  • Break the rest of the ice down into useable chunks with an ice pick or the knife and mallet.
  • Do this by scoring a line in the ice and then tapping along the top of the knife to break the block in half over and over.
  • Make sure to keep all of your fingertips.
  • Store the pieces on a tray in your freezer or in a freezer bag for later.
  • Refill the cooler and start over.

This process works because of the insulation in the sides of the cooler. If you look at a regular ice cube out of a mold it is usually cloudy in the center. Or they look like small versions of the large original block. The water froze at the same speed from all directions trapping oxygen. Within the cooler the ice freezes slowly in a downward fashion pushing all the air trapped in the water to the bottom. That is why you need to remove the bottom quarter of the block. A tiny sacrifice for a good amount of useable clear ice.

Ice — or water rather — is the one ingredient that all cocktails share together. Time spent on this important chore will allow you to appreciate the cocktails you make even more. Ice in a cocktail serves two purposes: chilling and diluting. When using ice to stir or shake a drink there cannot be one without the other. While chilling you will be diluting. Using hard impurity free ice the dilution is controllable, stable, and recreatable. If you are using quality spirits in your cocktails you should also use quality ice.

This is the only ice I use at home. I find that one block gets me through the week and then some. I do try to keep a backup ready for company. I use this ice for shaking and stirring as well as serving cocktails or spirits over ice. If I need to make a punch for an event I will use half a block in a punch bowl. It looks beautiful floating in a sea of sliced fruit and cloudy effervescent delight. Make sure you take a couple chunks out to sit for a few minutes before you pour something over them or they will crack.

Luke Andrews is a bartender in Chicago and the owner of BoomBox Consulting.