Episode 012 - Ice and Cocktails

Welcome back to the Modern Bar Cart Podcast. I’m your host, Eric Kozlik, and today I’m comin atcha with another bar cart foundations episode, where we examine one of the most essential components of home bartending and look at it from a bunch of different angles, offering tips and bar hacks along the way.

Today, we’re featuring a substance that needs no introduction, that cool operator, that namesake of cubes, teas, and creams, the notorious H-2-O...that’s right. Today, we’re taking a look at ICE.

But, before I jump in and start slammin ya with factoids and recommendations, I want to give you the chance to make yourself a drink. And I thought, since we’re talking about ice today, I’d feature a cocktail that’s always served on the rocks (which is cocktail slang for “over ice”).

The Old Fashioned Cocktail

This particular cocktail is rather famous, and if you’re a whiskey fan, you’re bound to have run across it before. It’s called “The Old Fashioned,” and it’s the granddaddy of whiskey cocktails. Now, with any cocktail that’s been around for as long as the old fashioned, there’s usually some debate about how it’s “traditionally” made. But across all the Old Fashioned recipes in all the land, three ingredients remain constant:

Whiskey, Sugar, and Aromatic Bitters.

So, to make an Old Fashioned, I take a Domino’s white sugar cube and place that in the bottom of a mixing glass. Then, I soak that with several dashes of Embitterment Aromatic Bitters, which are available for purchase on modernbarcart.com/products. They’re affordable, they’re certified USDA organic, and you can have them shipped right to your door.

After I add the bitters, In order to help the sugar dissolve more easily, I add just a splash of filtered water to that--maybe ¼ to ½ oz. And I take a muddler and grind that whole mixture together in the bottom of the mixing glass until the sugar, bitters, and water are well mixed into a sort of slurry.

Then, I add a scoop of ice and 2 to 2.5 oz of Rye or Bourbon whiskey, and I stir for about 30 seconds. And the stirring here does a couple things. First, it helps chill down the drink, but second, as the ice melts, it actually provides a bit more water to the beverage, allowing the sugar to further dissolve and integrate into the drink.

When I’m done stirring, I strain the liquid contents into a rocks glass that has a single large cube, and then I garnish the whole thing with an “expressed” orange peel, which I leave in the drink.

So, there you have it. The Old Fashioned recipe. This recipe can also be found in the show notes and in the cocktail recipes section of modernbarcart.com, so feel free to revisit these steps online if you want a quick refresher.

So, I hope at least some of you had the opportunity to pause this episode and make yourself a delicious Old Fashioned, but if you’re at work or something, do what I always recommend—make an Old Fashioned--IN YOUR MIND. With that, I invite you to sit back and think frosty thoughts as I run through everything you need to know about ice and home bartending.

Water: The Prequel

If you think about it, ice has literally shaped the world we live in. Right now, in 2017, we’re concerned about the state of the polar ice caps. We’re freaking out about an iceberg the size of Delaware that has just detached itself from Antarctica. But humans a few millennia ago didn’t have the same relationship with ice. Sure, it’s probably what allowed them to cross from Asia into North America by means of the Bering Strait, but it was also a symbol of the threat of nature. When a primitive band of hunter gatherers lived in the shadow of a massive glacier, they were literally in the presence of something with the power to move mountains and carve massive valleys. We still can see the evidence of that power in many of America’s wild places today.

But what does this have to do with cocktails? Not much, except that the power of ice is all due to the unique properties of a little molecule called H20.

See, water is the George Costanza of substances—it does the opposite, thermodynamically speaking, that is. Whereas many other substances expand when heated, water become “smaller” in a manner of speaking, transitioning eventually to a gaseous state. And whereas many other substances contract or become smaller when exposed to cold, water expands.

When was the last time you cursed after hitting a really nasty pothole on the road? Well, you’ve got water to thank for those. Because when water seeps into an unsuspecting crack in the pavement and then freezes, the expansion of the water forces that crack to widen simply by virtue of the fact that the water has nowhere else to go when it expands.

Again. What does any of this have to do with cocktails?

Well, we know that the primary function of ice in the production or enjoyment of a cocktail is to “chill down” the drink. And that means a thermodynamic reaction is happening wherein an exchange of energy is taking place. So, as bartenders, when we mix our fancy little drinks, we are literally harnessing the same physical power a water trickle uses to create a pothole and that a glacier uses to carve a valley. But we’re using it in a slightly different way.

See, the first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, and so it makes sense for us to ask, in the context of a cocktail, “where is the energy?” Well, heat is a type of energy, and when you pour your room temperature cocktail ingredients into your shaker or mixing glass, their molecules are moving at a given speed. That’s what makes them “liquid” components.

The molecules in the ice, however, are moving at a much slower rate. And when the cold ice comes in contact with the relatively warm liquid cocktail ingredients it absorbs some of that energy, which causes it to melt. Both the absorption of that heat and the relatively cool water that results from the melting are what chills down your cocktail. So, it’s not that ice donates its coldness to the drink, but rather that it absorbs some of the heat energy from the initial solution and must sacrifice a bit of itself in the process. That sacrifice, by the way, is what bartenders call “dilution.”

Water: The Universal Solvent

Another really important characteristic of H2O is that it’s what scientists refer to as “The Universal Solvent,” meaning that it’s really good at dissolving things.

The reason I bring this up is because before you even think about your ice, you should probably ask yourself the potentially unsettling question: What’s really in my water?

We know that municipal water is laced with potentially benign substances like Fluoride and perhaps chlorine, and these definitely have the capacity to affect the way your water (and therefore you ice) tastes. We also know thanks to national news sources that the city of Flint, Michigan has been without clean water for two years, experiencing life-threatening heavy-metal toxicity levels in their regular tap water. And if it can happen in one city, it’s probably happening in other places as well.

I say these things not to concern you, but to make the point that cocktail people tend to be particular about flavor, and part of that is doing the due diligence to determine what you’re actually putting into your body when you make a drink. So, I’m not qualified to make scientifically sound claims about the status of your drinking water, but when it comes to ice, there are a few simple options for ensuring purity.

One easy step would be to make sure you run your water through a water filter before freezing it. You can use various filtration pitchers, faucet attachments, or even refrigerator filters to make this happen. Another option would be to purchase distilled water or mineral water at the store and use that. The difference between the two is that distilled water is (in theory) devoid of any flavor because it is boiled, turned into steam and then re-condensed into water which ensures purity. Spring water or mineral water, on the other hand, can contain certain minerals (and maybe other stuff) depending on where it’s sourced from and how it’s treated by the manufacturer.

Surprisingly, water is its own rabbit hole, with people claiming that certain limestone filtered water actually makes your whiskey taste better, and debating the best water to be used in the distillation of spirits, but for right now, I think we need to turn our attention to what happens when water molecules slow down and enter their solid state.

The History of Ice

If you think about the cocktail as a truly American beverage, then you’ve got to ask yourself where and how these first bartenders got their ice. And, because we know that the cocktail came of age in the 19th century, we’ll start a little before that.

Since the beginning of our nation, ice was harvested from lakes and ponds in the northern states that received solid enough freezes. It was stored in highly-insulated coolers called “Ice Houses,” and delivered to the wealthy and to commercial establishments like hotels, restaurants, bars, and taverns.

This meant that ice was both highly seasonal and likely extremely expensive during the summer and autumn--which is ironic because the warm months are when you crave a cool drink the most.

Flash forward to 1835, and we see an American inventor, Jacob Perkins, issued a patent for a “vapor compression refrigeration cycle.” In other words, this is one of the earliest versions of the compressor that runs your household refrigerator and freezer. After Perkins, numerous patents were filed by Americans and foreigners alike, which resulted in advances like the refrigerated box car, which allowed for faster westward expansion, and, eventually, the household refrigerator.

Since most of these inventions weren’t powerful to actually generate ice until the late 1800s and early 1900s, bars still used ice blocks harvested during winter, but advances in both insulation and refrigeration made ice a bit more cost effective, and therefore more widely used in cocktails as time went on.

Flash forward from then to now.

Today, when we want ice, we do one of three things:

  1. We take an ice cube tray, fill it with water, stick it in the freezer, and wait.
  2. We push the button on the side of the fridge, and out tumble cubes or crushed ice.
  3. We run to the store and grab a 5 lb bag of pre-made ice.

But what we don’t usually think about is the fact that all these various kinds of ice look different.

The stuff from the freezer is clearer the larger the cubes are. The stuff that comes out of the refrigerator door is usually slender and really cloudy. And the stuff in the 5 lb bag is either flat and pillow-shaped or looks like a tiny hollow cylinder.

This is because different types of ice are used for different purposes. The stuff in your fridge door is most often used for chilling water or other non-boozy beverages. And so coldness is the key factor. And the ice in the 5 lb bags is most often just dumped into a cooler and used to chill down drinks, so it’s produced in whatever way is cheapest for ice companies to make.

But what happens when we start caring about the flavor and aesthetic implications of our ice choices in cocktails? That’s when things get a bit more complicated.   

In the glass, we often want a piece of ice that is large and crystal clear. And sometimes, we even have preferences about what shape that ice should be.

For example, if you’re sipping a really nice Old Fashioned on the rocks and you want to sit there and savor every drop, you don’t want your ice melting super-quickly and watering down the drink.

This means you want a cube with a small amount of surface area relative to its size.

Think of it this way: two one-inch ice cubes have way more surface area than a single two-inch cube, which means they’ll melt at a faster rate.

Another way to cut down on surface area is to adjust the shape of the cube. It’s a mathematical fact that spheres have less surface area than cubes, and so if you want to get even less and slower dilution, an ice sphere might be your best bet.

On the market, there are a number of different options for making cubes and spheres of various sizes, but I find that starting out, you really only need to invest in one or two of those “large cube” molds.

Making Crystal Clear Ice at Home

Now, let’s say you’re the kind of person who wants an incredibly clear, beautiful, shapely ice cube in your drink.

The most important thing for you to know in order to produce these in your own home is the concept of “directional freezing.” This basically means that water freezes from the top down, and from the outside in.  

Think about a pond in winter. First, a thin film of ice forms across the top of the pond, and then that ice gradually thickens from the top down. Now, the difference between ponds and ice cube trays is that ponds rarely have enough time and cold weather to freeze completely.  If they did, a layer of ice would eventually form around the entire outside and bottom of the pond, and the ice would then freeze from the outside in.

In your freezer, the concept of directional freezing combines with water’s “universal solvent” trait to reveal the key to perfectly clear ice.

If you look at an ice cube you made in your freezer, you’ll probably see a clear layer at the top, a thinner clear layer on the sizes and bottom, and a cloudy center. What happens here is that, as water freezes, the impurities, air bubbles, and minerals dissolved in that water are pushed toward the center of the cube, where the water has not yet frozen. Eventually, there’s nowhere left to go, and so the water freezes around them, but the result is the aforementioned cloudiness.

So, the best way to get crystal clear ice is to freeze your water in as large a container as possible--a small cooler is usually the best at-home option. So, you fill that with water, wait a couple days, and then you’ve got a solid block of ice, with much of it being clear.

You can use a serrated knife to score above the cloudy portion of the block, then gently tap in with a chisel and a mallet, and usually you get a pretty clean break. At that point, you can go to town and use that serrated blade along with your hammer and chisel to create whatever size and shape of cubes you’d like.

This process lends itself more to video than it does to audio, and so hopefully in the near future, we’ll have the chance to put a nice tutorial up on YouTube.

Dilution—Friend or Foe?

But what about the ice that doesn’t end up in the final drink--the stuff in your mixing glass or cocktail shaker? This solid H2O is also really important to the final outcome of the drink--particularly when it comes to dilution.

When we talk about dilution, what we’re really referring to is the transition of H20 from its solid state back to its liquid one. And so it makes sense to ask ourselves, what are some of the effects of that transition?

The primary side-effects of dilution in a cocktail are 1.) an increase in the liquid volume of the drink, which 2.) lowers the overall ALCOHOL by volume, and 3.) assists in the process of marrying certain ingredients—taking the various parts of the cocktail and turning them into a more cohesive whole.

It’s this third effect that I want to focus on here because it’s where things can go either very right, or very wrong. Yes, of course, some of this boils down to a matter of personal preference, but most people will agree that there is a certain point at which you can water down a cocktail either too much or too little.

So how do you hit that sweet spot?

Well, a couple things to consider before you shake or stir are how much booze is going in, and how much water the other ingredients already contain.

For example, a cocktail that contains a healthy amount of citrus juice and maybe some simple syrup will be able to effectively mask a higher amount of alcohol burn than a drink with exclusively boozy components. Add to this equation the fact that most citrus cocktails are shaken rather than stirred, and you have a higher dilution rate, which further masks the alcohol and softens the acidity of the drink.

Keeping in mind that stirring generally results in less dilution than shaking, an easy way to answer the question, “should I shake or should I stir?”, is to figure out if your cocktail is intended to be on the boozy side, like a Martini, an Old Fashioned, or a Negroni, or if it’s meant to taste softer and fruitier, like a good tiki drink. Stir the boozy drinks, and shake the fruity ones.

Another thing to consider is clarity. When you shake a cocktail, you’re creating hundreds of tiny ice chips in the shaker, and as these melt, the drink very often becomes cloudy, since there’s still that active thermodynamic change taking place. So, if you want your cocktail to be perfectly clear, stirring is a good way to go.

Dilution Hacks

Personally, one trick I’ve seen professional bartenders use when they want to shake a drink, but they’re also looking to minimize dilution, is they use a couple large ice cubes in the shaker instead of a handful of small ones. Then, they shake the drink for a longer period of time, and more gently than normal, such that less of those small ice chunks are going to break off. This ensures a well-chilled drink with good integration of citrus ingredients, but with less dilution.

The Dry Shake

Another option is the so-called “dry shake,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Let’s say you’ve got a complicated cocktail that may contain dairy or egg white components—like a whiskey sour or a Ramos Gin Fizz. In many cases, bartenders will employ a dry shake at first to make sure all the ingredients are mixed together before they add ice. Then, they add the ice and shake again, but perhaps for a shorter period of time than they would if the ice was added right at the beginning of the process. This way, they can hit that dilution “sweet spot” and avoid watering down the drink. So, the moral of the story here is that if you’re having issues with dilution, using a dry shake BEFORE you add your ice to the shaker could be the solution you’re looking for.

Finally, I’d like to address the topic of crushed ice, specifically when it comes to the role it plays in cocktails. Unlike ice cubes or chunks, crushed ice is rarely used in the production of the cocktail. You’ll see it appear most often in hot-weather drinks like certain juleps, cobblers, and tiki cocktails, and in many cases traditionally in a metal or insulated vessel. The purpose of crushed ice is mostly for the maintenance optimal drink coldness, rather than for the actual creation of the cocktail, so if you’re wondering what would happen if you mix up an old fashioned with crushed ice—it would be super watery. Don’t do it.  

I know this is all fairly technical and complicated, so I welcome you to email podcast@modernbarcart.com with any questions about dilution or any other ice-related topics, and we’ll be happy to chat with you and lend some more technical advice.

Ice Accessories

Before I leave you here, I’m gonna review a few ice-related cocktail products and basically weigh in on who might want to purchase them for their home bar.

Large Ice Cube Molds

First up, large ice cube molds. These made a BIG impact in my ability to enjoy whiskey cocktails, and it also allowed me to more slowly enjoy certain cocktails that are boozy, but traditionally served up in a coupe glass--like a Negroni or a Boulevardier. The minimal dilution in those cases is a big advantage.

So, I’d say everyone should invest in at least one of the large ice cube molds.

Other ice Cube Molds

There are, of course, ice molds in pretty much every shape under the sun. Long, slender cubes for Collins glasses, sphere molds, and even novelty shapes. If any of these appeal to you, then you are their audience and you should buy them. I think they can definitely add a bit of whimsy to the presentation of the drink, but I’d say that the majority of you listening probably aren’t going to lose sleep if you don’t have them.

Ice Bucket and Tongs

An ice bucket is a really great tool for outdoor or porch-centered entertaining, as well is if your cocktail prep space happens to be separated from the space where your ice resides. Definitely recommend picking one up if either of those situations apply to you.

Lewis Bag and Mallet

When it comes to breaking ice, there is one tool called a Lewis Bag and Mallet, that allows you to basically place your ice block in a leather bag and beat the hell out of it with a wooden mallet.

Again, if this sounds appealing to you, then you are the audience for this product and you should buy it.

Whiskey Stones

As a bonus, I’ll also weigh in on “whiskey stones,” which are those little granite rocks sold in fancy stores. And you’re supposed to put them in your freezer to chill down and then use them in your whiskey instead of ice so that your drink doesn’t get watered down.

Two things here:

  1. They don’t work in that they completely fail to chill down your whiskey.
  2. It’s a well documented observation that adding a bit of water (or ice) to your whiskey actually enhances the ability to perceive some of the flavor notes that the alcohol burn initially masks. So why wouldn’t you want to water down your whiskey?

Just my two cents there, but I think you should channel your whiskey stone money into some big ice cube trays.

Thanks for listening, folks, and as always, make sure you’re checking us out on Instagram and Facebook for exciting updates on our recipes and product offerings. We’ve got a great episode next week where I sit down with Jonathan Fasano of Don Ciccio e Figli and talk about the wonderful world of amaro, so I hope you’ll join me for that.

Until then, chill out, and go play with some ice.