Licence to chill: the vital role of ice in cocktails

The use of ice in cocktail making is critical. Despite its recent bad press, Joel Harrison defends ice as the single most important element of any mixed drink

Words by Joel Harrison

ice cube over whisky

To say that ice is important in cocktails is to understate in the extreme. Ice is the equivalent of air for an aeroplane, or snow for skiing. Without it, you won’t get very far. When was the last time you had a ‘warm’ cocktail? I’m not talking hot like an Irish Coffee, but one served at room temperature like a good ale or glass of claret. I’d wager the answer is never. And if you were served a drink luke-warm, I’d also wager that it would be sent straight back. At home, my mantra is: ‘if you run out of ice, you run out of party’.

To understand ice’s role in mixed drinks we need to delve into the history and anatomy of the cocktail. Back in the early 1800s, a mix of sugar (an expensive commodity), exotic fresh fruit juices, expensive distilled liquors and ice marked the cocktail out as a rarified thing; a show of wealth and out-of-home experience with gilded glassware and white-coated waiting staff.

These key foundations of the cocktail have changed little over the centuries, yet over time the constituent parts have become considerably cheaper, even with costs sky rocketing these days. Over a century ago, ice was a highly prized and rare commodity, often farmed in America or Norway and transported to London. Today you can pick up a kilo of ice in a supermarket for about a pound.

The use of ice is key in both mixing drinks and serving them. When stirring down a cocktail, such as a Martini, the science behind the stir is to cool the cocktail and dilute it a little. Conversely, the art of a quick shake is almost the opposite, serving to agitate the ice and mixture to chill it fast with minimal dilution.

In Japan, you’ll find highly skilled bartenders hand-carving ice spheres as big as tennis balls

Ice is as important in the serve as the shake or stir. Some drinks are designed to be served, as the Americans would say, ‘straight up’ – that is, neat with no ice. Others appear ‘on the rocks’, often served with a large block of ice to keep the drink chilled while sipping.

On the rocks drinks are rooted in cocktail culture – the first recorded cocktail, the Old Fashioned, is the poster-boy for drinks served this way – and if you visit bars in Japan, you’ll find highly skilled bartenders hand-carving ice spheres as big as tennis balls for whisky serves. Size matters here, as the bigger the ball, the slower the melt.

But things seem to be getting out of hand of late. A growing number of social media users are complaining about the volume of ice in their drink, filming themselves removing blocks of the stuff, watching as the liquor level drops substantially and gasping as if Archimdes never existed. Their ‘eureka’ moment shows a misunderstanding of the importance of ice in a cocktail.

Having said this, it can be overused, and I’ve been burnt by ice before (oh, the irony). On a recent trip to a fashionable new bar in London, I found myself with a drink that was mostly ice. One large, albeit very beautiful, crystal-clear cuboid took up the majority of real estate in the glass. The ice had gone from being a vital component in a balanced drink, to stealing the show.

I don’t baulk at paying good money for well-made drinks, and a fair proportion of my hard-earned is handed over at bars across the globe, the transaction returning me world-class cocktails made by world-class bartenders. What I do object to is when the ice is the star, and the drink the sideshow. In this case, the ice in my glass was unnecessarily large, to the detriment of the drink. Instead of enhancing, it detracted from it.

Celebrated drinks scribe and historian Dave Wondrich writes in his book Imbibe! ‘A proper drink at the right time­ – one mixed with care and skill and served in a true spirit of hospitality – is better than any other made thing at giving us the illusion, at least, that we’re getting what we want from life’. In this bar, I was under no illusion that what I wanted was less ice.

The very best ice, ‘professional grade’ if you will, in the hands of great bartenders, is perhaps the sharpest tool in their kit. Fresh, crystal clear, beautifully presented and neutral in flavour, the best barkeeps work wonders with it. So let’s not start saying that the use of ice is a ‘scam’ and a smoke-screen to serve less spirits. It isn’t.

Instead, let’s celebrate ice. Once carved from Nordic tundras at great expense but today readily available to all, let’s revel in its role in diluting and elevating drinks, and marvel at the wizards who risk their fingers carving ice balls. But above all, let’s learn the biggest lesson ice has to give us: let’s chill, people.

What Joel has been drinking…

  • Last year, I took my first pilgrimage to New Orleans, a city rich in cocktail history. It was an incredible experience, and I’m so happy to see the book ‘Cure: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em’ by Neal Bodenheimer and Emily Timberlake released. It has inspired me to start making the complex but brilliant Ramos Gin Fizz cocktail at home. A mix of gin (I choose Plymouth), lemon, lime, orange blossom water, cream and egg white, it looks like a soufflé in a glass. A real show stopper.
  • As the days lengthen – albeit slowly – I’m finding myself spending more time of an afternoon in the outdoors, either walking or enjoying a cigar. Both have been immeasurably enhanced by sipping on a good Scotch, and in my hipflask currently is Glenmorangie Signet, a single malt made from heavily roasted ‘chocolate malt’. Rich and delicious, it is perfect for the late winter-early spring evenings.
  • For something a little more refreshing, I’ve been indulging in a Jeeves and Wooster classic, the ‘B&S’: brandy and soda. It’s basically a highball, and I’ve been using Rémy Martin’s excellent 1738. Lengthened with lightly sparkling water, ice and a squeeze of lemon juice, it is the best way to metaphorically burst through the dark of winter.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique.