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Ice, the heart of any good cocktail

Cocktails can be shaken, stirred, sour, sweet, high abv%, low abv%, and much, much more. But one thing they all have in common is ICE! All cocktails, except for the blue blazer and other hot cocktails, have or require ice. And this is what a good cocktail starts with.

Start talking to a bartender about ice, and there is a big chance his/her eyes will light up and they start passionately talking about their ice program. Bartenders know the importance of ice and know how to treat ice in a cocktail. There are many bars that take great pride in their ice program. They create their own clear ice cubes, carve them in beautiful shapes and keep their ice at a consistent and good temperature. 

In this blog, I will try to illustrate the importance of ice and give tips and tricks on how to get the best ice in your bar and at home. 

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Dilution

The reason why ice is so important is dilution. When you shake, stir, build, throw or use any other method to create your cocktail you will be using ice. Due to the differences in temperature between your ingredients and the ice you use, there will be a certain amount of dilution, resulting in melting ice. The balance and taste of a cocktail are determined by the amount of dilution. I won't go too deep on the processes behind dilution in this blog. If you are interested in a deeper understanding of dilution, I would like to refer you to Dave Arnold's masterpiece of a book; Liquid Intelligence. In this blog, the main focus lies on the role ice plays in drinks.

Let's do a test!

Let's do a quick test. Prepare a Negroni in a stirring glass. The recipe you use is completely up to you, it is not relevant for this test. Now add a large amount of ice (general rule: use more volume of ice than volume of liquid, this is important to get the right balance between dilution and temperature. If you don't use enough ice, there will be a lot of dilution, but not necessarily a lot of chilling of the drink) and pour a small amount of the Negroni into one glass. Now start stirring your cocktail for about 20 counts and again pour an amount of Negroni into a second glass. Stir for another 20 counts and pour the remaining Negroni into a third glass. Make sure all three glasses yield an equal amount.

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Now taste all three Negronis and see if there are differences. If you taste a difference, it is due to dilution, the watering down of your cocktail. The third Negroni we would typically call overdiluted. You get this when you stir too long, don't use enough ice or use ice that is too 'warm'. The latter meaning ice that has been in a badly insulated ice bucket for instance and already has started melting. Ice typically comes from a machine around -8 to -10 degrees and if kept in a well-insulated ice well, stays around -6 to -8 for a while. In a busy bar you use lots of ice, so the rotation is high and the temperature won't rise too much. Ice that is kept in a badly insulated ice bucket might be around the 0 to -2 degrees and melts faster in your drink, resulting in more dilution!

Temperature

You might not expect it, but there is a reason behind the things we do as bartenders. Above we have talked about dilution and mentioned temperature. Temperature is super important when it comes to cocktails. We can do a second little test, but you won't know the answer before the end of this article though. 

Take a bottle of any spirit, We've done it with Bols Barrel Aged Genever. Smell, taste, and write down your tasting notes. Now put your bottle in the freezer and leave it there for at least 12 hours. Now smell and taste again and compare both tasting notes with each other. Have they changed? I bet they have. The temperature has a very important influence on flavor. If your drink is not shaken or stirred well, the guest will taste this. If the ice you use is not cold enough, the guest will taste this. You simply won't reach the same temperature in the 8 counts you shake your cocktail for instance. 

Invest in a proper ice machine

If you open a bar, or if you are a bartender or -manager in a bar, make sure you purchase and use the right ice machine. What you want is good, solid ice cubes preferably square with no holes in the bottom. These ice cubes should come out of the machine at the right temperature and should be kept in a well-insulated ice-bunker in your ice machine and bar stations. Now if you can, ideally you look for an ice machine where you can add a filter for the water you use, but this would be in the ideal situation. We understand this is not easy. 

Buy the right ice

If an ice machine is not available or possible in your bar for whatever reason, make sure you source and partner with a good ice supplier. Start looking for a specialized ice maker that can tell you all about the product they deliver, that delivers it well chilled and at the right temperature, and if you want to be fancy, one that can deliver you clear ice. 

Make the right ice

If you have the possibility and time in your bar or at home, you can make good solid ice cubes yourself. Fill a Tupperware box with water for instance and put that in the freezer. When it is well frozen, take it out and let it rest for half an hour. Now, with a sharp knife, cut your own ice cubes from this block. Make sure they are nice and solid and either use them directly or put them back into the freezer. You can fill a plastic soda bottle with water as well, and put that in the freezer. Once frozen, cut the plastic from the ice and start cutting your ice cubes. This is less sustainable of course.

Have fun with it, but take it serious!

When you make your own ice, or when you design your drinks, have a bit of fun with your ice. Think of the glass you like, the effect you want to create and what type of ice you would like to use. Maybe you want to use a beautiful, big ice cube. Or you want to freeze fruits in your ice cubes. Everything is possible when you buy or make your own ice. 

Whether you have an ice machine, you buy your ice or you make it yourself, the important thing is that you take your ice seriously. You can't spend a lot of time on your homemade ingredients, the perfect flavor and looks of your cocktail and then not have enough ice or use bad ice. This will nullify all your good efforts.

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Photo by cottonbro via Pexels

Do you want to learn more about making your own ice and the importance of ice in your cocktails? Check out our online bartending course and our Advanced Bartending course and learn all about balance and dilution or book our Master Bartender course and learn all about carving and creating your own ice cubes!

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