The Complete Cocktail Ice Guide

Complete guide of ice cubes

Mixed drinks typically have one thing in common: they almost all use cocktail ice (with very few exceptions). Mixologists understand that ice is an incredibly important aspect of cocktail making, and the type of ice you use as well as how and when you use it has a significant affect on the resulting mixed drink.

Why Cocktail Ice Is Important

Why is ice so essential to cocktail making? Because it serves a few purposes in making your cocktails have the ideal balance of flavor, aroma, and temperature. Some ways cocktail ice is used include the following.

Chilling Glasses

You can use ice to chill cocktail glasses before you put the finished cocktail in them. A properly chilled glass contributes both to the serving temperature of the cocktail and to how cool the cocktail stays as you drink it. Use crushed, cracked, or bagged ice to chill a cocktail glass. To do so:

  1. Use an ice scoop to fill your chosen cocktail glass to the rim with crushed ice, cracked ice, or small cube ice.
  2. Add a splash of water or soda water.
  3. Let the glass sit with ice in it while you prepare the drink.
  4. Just before straining the drink into the glass, dump out the ice and water and quickly pat it dry with a paper towel.

The types of drinks and cocktails that will benefit best from pre-chilling include:

  • Martini or cocktail glasses with chilled drinks served "up"
  • White wine glasses
  • Highball, collins, or rocks glasses that will hold a chilled drink either up or on the rocks
  • Champagne glasses and coupes
  • Pint glasses or other beer glasses
  • Shot glasses for chilled shots
  • Julep cups
  • Mule mugs

You can double the effectiveness of an ice chilled glass by storing the glass in the freezer for a few hours before using it. Take it out of the freezer and fill it with ice and a splash of water just before you prepare the drink.

Frozen Beer mug

Chilling a Drink

You use ice during the cocktail making process to chill a drink. The best size of ice cubes for drink chilling is 1-inch cubes, which is a standard ice cube. This allows for maximum chilling with the right amount of melt for drink dilution.

  • You can chill a drink in a cocktail shaker (common for drinks with juices and spirits). To use ice in a cocktail shaker, add all drink ingredients. Then, fill the shaker about ¾ full with ice and shake vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds. Strain into your preferred cocktail glass.
  • Chill a drink in a mixing glass (common for drinks containing no juices). Add the cocktail ingredients to the glass, and then fill about ¾ full with ice cubes. Use a bar spoon and stir for about 30 to 45 seconds. Then, strain it into the appropriate glassware.
  • Chill a drink in the glass it is served in. Add all the ingredients, and then add the appropriate ice. Use a barspoon, teaspoon, or a stir stick to stir for about 15 seconds to mix the ingredients and start to chill the drink.

Diluting a Drink

As you chill a drink, the ice melts a little, which provides the appropriate amount of dilution to your drink. Between 15% and a quarter of the volume of your drink can be water that comes from the ice melt as you stir or shake it to chill the drink. The dilution is important because you want to create a balanced drink, but you don't want to overdo it and make it watery. This is why 1-inch cubes are ideal for chilling and mixing many drinks. When mixed with chilled or room temperature ingredients, they melt at the perfect rate to create an ideal dilution without watering the drink down.

  • For less diluted drinks, use chilled ingredients to make the drink and/or work with larger ice cubes.
  • For more diluted drinks, use room temperature ingredients and/or work with smaller ice cubes or ice chips.

In general, the first 15 seconds or so of stirring adds about 1 ounce of water to your cocktail. Every 15 seconds after that initial 15 seconds adds an additional ¼ ounce, so:

  • 15 seconds - 1 ounce
  • 30 seconds - 1¼ ounces
  • 45 seconds - 1½ ounces
  • 60 seconds - 1¾ ounces

When shaking, dilution and chilling occur more quickly when using 1-inch ice cubes. Expect to add about ¾ an ounce of water for the first 10 seconds and an additional ¼ ounce for every 10 seconds thereafter, so:

  • 10 seconds - ¾ ounce
  • 20 seconds - 1 ounce
  • 30 seconds - 1¼ ounce

Keeping a Cocktail or Punch Cold

Ice also keeps your cocktails cold. Many drinks are served with ice added after the drink has been strained in order to help maintain the chilled temperature while you sip it.

  • Since the cocktail is at near-ideal dilution when you strain it from the mixing ice, use larger cubes versus crushed ice. Larger cubes will melt more slowly.
  • Some cocktails, such as a mint julep, call for shaved or crushed ice for serving. If the recipe calls specifically for crushed ice, then make sure you use it.
  • Large ice rings or ice blocks can float in a punch bowl to keep a punch at the appropriate temperature with minimal dilution.
  • Use large ice cubes in a pitcher of punch, such as sangria. This will minimize dilution while keeping the pitcher ingredients chilled.
  • Ambient temperature will affect how quickly the ice melts, so keep the air temp in mind when selecting an ice size for keeping drinks, punches, and pitchers cold.
Cold cocktail

Giving a Cocktail Smoky Visual Effects

Adding dry ice to a cocktail can create smoky or visual effects, making a fun and safe drink presentation. To give a cocktail a smoky effect using dry ice you will need:

  • A block of food grade dry ice
  • Clean towel
  • Tongs
  • Hammer
  • Clean chisel or flat-head screwdriver
  • Googles
  • Heat-resistant gloves

To create a foggy drink with dry ice:

  1. Don the googles and, if you wish, cold-resistant gloves.
  2. Place the dry ice on a towel on a counter or in the sink. The towel will hold the block in place.
  3. Use a hammer and chisel to break the ice into 1-inch cubes.
  4. Use tongs to lift the ice and drop it into your prepared drink. Keep additional cubes in a cooler or place the block in the cooler and chip cubes as needed.

The dry ice will sink to the bottom of the glass. Remind your guests not to drink or eat the cube.

cocktails with dry ice

Changing a Drink's Mouthfeel

The type of ice you use, how much ice you use, and how the ice is incorporated will also affect the mouthfeel (texture) of a drink.

  • A drink shaken with ice will have a lighter mouthfeel because shaking with the ice aerates the drink.
  • A drink stirred with ice will have a silkier mouthfeel.

Enhancing the Drink's Appearance

Ice can aesthetically enhance your drink's appearance. The shape and clarity of the ice used is part of the overall presentation of the drink.

Iced drink

Adding Volume

Ice adds volume to drinks both with dilution and by simply taking up space in a drink served on the rocks or blended.

Rapidly Chilling Wine or Beer

If unexpected guests show up and you don't have any chilled wine, sparkling wine, or beer, you can use an ice bath to chill the wine or beer in about 15 to 20 minutes. To do this:

  1. Fill a large container such as a bucket, bowl, or insulated cooler, about ¾ full with water and ice. The ratio should be about two parts ice to 1 part water.
  2. Fully submerge the bottles in the ice bath and allow them to chill for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Chilled wine

Keeping Wine, Beer, and Cocktail Ingredients Cold

If you're having an outdoor gathering and you've set up a little bar area, you can keep your drinks and ingredients cold by placing them in a bucket or cooler full of ice.

Beer and Ice

Cocktail Ice Terminology

You'll find mixology has its own terms that often indicate how the ice in the drink is used and how the drink is served. These are important terms to know whether you mix drinks or order them.

Cocktails with ice

On the Rocks

A drink served on the rocks (sometimes just called rocks - such as saying, "margarita rocks") simply means the drink is served over ice. Some drinks served on the rocks include:

Whiskey on the rocks

Neat (or Straight)

Neat is a term that describes a single spirit poured straight from the bottle and into a glass with no ice.

  • The spirit, such as vodka, blanco tequila, gin, or white rum, might be chilled in bottle (by keeping it in the fridge or freezer). Typically, white spirits served are served chilled.
  • Sometimes, a chilled white spirit poured directly from the bottle into a glass without ice are called straight instead of neat.
  • Brown spirits are typically served neat at room temperature. Some spirits that fall into this category include Cognac, Armagnac, whiskey, bourbon, Scotch, añejo tequila, or dark rum.
 whiskey bottle and crystal rock glass on marble

Up (or Straight Up)

A drink served up or straight up is one that is shaken or stirred with ice to chill and then strained into chilled glass without ice. Some drinks traditionally served up include:

Straight up cocktails

Chilled

Chilled simply refers to a drink that has its temperature lowered either by shaking or mixing with ice or by keeping ingredients in the fridge or freezer. Some ideal temperatures for chilled drinks and ingredients include:

  • Pale ales and lagers - 40° to 50°F
  • Porters and stouts - 50° to 55°F
  • Drinks with soda or fizzy elements - 38° to 40°F
  • Creamy drinks - 35° to 40°F
  • Straight white spirits (vodka, gin, etc.) - 32° to 38°F
  • Juice based cocktails - 54° to 59°F
  • White wine and rosé - 49° to 55°F
  • Champagne or sparkling white wine - 47° to 50°F
  • Martini style cocktails - 20° to 30°F
summer chilled drinks on table

Blended or Frozen

Cocktails that are blended or frozen mix ingredients with crushed ice in a blender to create a slushy drink. Some blended drinks include:

  • Frozen margarita
  • Frozen daiquiri
Frozen margarita

Strained

After a drink is chilled with ice, it is strained to remove any chunks of the old ice so it doesn't continue to melt and dilute the drink further. There are various strainers you can use to remove the ice from the drink as you pour it into the appropriate glass and serve it either up or on the rocks.

Bartender pouring using strainer

Shaken

A cocktail that is shaken is one that is chilled in a cocktail shaker by shaking with ice. Typically, cocktails containing juice and spirits are shaken so the two ingredients mix well.

Shaking a cocktail

Dry Shake

When you dry shake, you shake cocktail ingredients without ice to foam egg whites. You'll see this in fizz or flip drinks or in other egg white drinks such as pisco sour and whiskey sour. To dry shake:

  1. Add cocktail ingredients to a shaker. Don't add ice.
  2. Close the shaker and shake vigorously for a full 60 seconds.
  3. Add ice and shake again to chill for 15 to 20 seconds.
  4. Strain into the appropriate glass.

Stirred

Stirred cocktails are mixed in a mixing glass with ice using a barspoon for about 30 seconds. Cocktails that contain only spirits (no juices) are often stirred as are fizzy cocktails. Contrary to what James Bond claims, a martini, which contains only spirits (gin and vermouth) is stirred and not shaken. Conversely, a dirty martini, which contains olive juice, is shaken to incorporate the brine.

bartender stirring cocktail in glass

Types and Sizes of Cocktail Ice

Ice size and type matters for people seeking the ultimate cocktail experience.

Crushed Ice

Crushed ice (sometimes called julep ice) pieces are very small, almost snowy shards, so they melt fairly quickly. Therefore, crushed ice isn't ideal for chilling a drink, but it can be added to certain cocktails to create the right texture and look. Think of it as being just a size up from snow cone ice or shaved ice.

To crush your own ice, you can use a tool called a Lewis bag, which is a cloth bag designed for ice crushing, and a wooden mallet. To crush ice:

  1. Place ice cubes in a Lewis bag.
  2. Fold the bag over.
  3. Beat the bag with an ice mallet until you achieve the desired consistency.

Alternatively, you can crush one-inch ice cubes in a blender or food processor by pulsing on high for one-second pulses until you reach the desired consistency.

Always strain crushed ice through a fine mesh sieve to remove excess water before adding to your drink or you may over dilute it. Drinks that use crushed ice include:

  • Mint julep
  • Bramble
  • Moscow mule
  • Gin gin mule

Chipped or Cracked Ice

Cracked ice and chipped ice, or chip ice, are small ice particles (about ¼ to ½-inch pieces) that melt quickly but chill rapidly. Chipped ice also adds texture to drinks. To make chipped ice:

  1. Hold a 1-inch ice cube in the palm of your hand. If you wish, you can protect your hand with an oven glove.
  2. Use the back of a heavy spoon or bar spoon to crack the ice into pieces as you hold it.

Drinks that call for cracked or chipped ice include:

  • Frozen or blended drinks
  • Fizzy cocktails

Standard Ice Cubes for Cocktails (1" by 1")

Standard cubes are a standard sized ice cube, which is typically about 1" x 1". These cubes are the workhorses of the cocktail world; they not only are ideal for shaking or stirring drinks, but they are also perfect to add to a number of cocktails to keep them cold without melting super fast. If you can only use one size of ice cube, this is your best bet. Not all standard size ice pieces are cubes; you may also find ice pieces in about this size in other shapes such as bullets, spheres, or cylinders.

Standard ice cubes

Cocktail Ice Cubes - Large King Cubes

King cubes are larger ice cubes that are 2"x2". They are used to serve drinks (not to chill them), so for presentation purposes, if you can get them in super clear ice, your drink will look better. These cubes keep a drink cold while melting slowly for minimal dilution. You'll often see them used in cocktails such as:

  • Old fashioned
  • Whiskey on the rocks
  • Cocktails served in a rocks glass
Whiskey on the rocks

Spheres

Spheres are round 2-inch diameter balls of ice that can be used for serving and keeping cocktails cool, much in the same way a king cube does. You can use a sphere in any drink you'd use a king cube. Spheres tend to melt more slowly than cubes of the same size because of their shape and surface area.

The cut glass contains whiskey and round ice

Collins Spears

Collins spears are spear rectangular ice cubes that fit perfectly into the tall, narrow collins glass. These are presentation cubes that help make a drink look just right while still providing a slow melting chill. To make them, you need a collins ice tray.

Collin Spears ice cubes

Ice Blocks/Rings

An ice block is exactly what it sounds like - a big block of ice. You can either use this to create smaller bits of ice, or it can serve as a floating ice block to chill a punch. You can also use an ice ring, frozen in a mold, to keep a punch chilled.

Ice block

Novelty Shapes

There are a number of novelty shaped ice molds you can purchase as well. These create fun shapes, such as octagons, skulls, animals, flowers, gems, and more. These are best for presentation and keeping your drink cool, and melting times will depend on the size and shape of the cubes you make.

Dry Ice

Dry ice is solid carbon dioxide. It is colorless, odorless, and very, very cold (around -109°F). It can create cool foggy effects when added to a drink, but you must handle it with care as it can cause burns.

  • Wear goggles and gloves when working with dry ice.
  • Use tongs to lift the ice.
  • Caution guests not to drink or eat the ice.
  • Use only food-grade dry ice.
Colorful cocktail with some dry ice effect

Non-Ice Cocktail Chillers

In recent years, a number of non-ice cocktail chillers have come on the market as well, such as whiskey stones or steel drink coolers. These are made to not dilute drinks while keeping them cold, typically from food grade materials that won't affect the flavor of the drink or erode in liquid. These are perfect for brown liquors served on the rocks, such as rye or whiskey.

How to Make Clear Ice for Cocktails

Clear ice has become a big deal in modern mixology because it adds visual appeal to drinks. Typical ice you make in your freezer is cloudy, but there is a method to make clearer ice cubes for serving your drinks. The reasons the ice you make at home tends to be cloudy are:

  • You're using cold tap water that contains impurities.
  • Freezing occurs from all sides of the ice, which results in uneven freezing and a cloudy appearance.

With this in mind, there are a few different methods you can use for making clear ice.

Try a Clear Ice Tray

Some manufacturers have created clear ice trays that allow you to make clear ice in your freezer using tap water. In order for them to work properly, you must follow the manufacturer's instructions exactly or you may wind up with cloudy ice.

Use a Cooler in the Freezer

If you have a small cooler that fits in your freezer, you can make clear ice because the cooler controls the direction in which the ice freezes.

  1. Fill the cooler with about 8-inches of warm filtered or spring water (not hot or cold).
  2. Place the cooler, uncovered, in the freezer for 18 to 24 hours.
  3. When you remove it from the freezer, the ice will be clear, but the bottom part won't be frozen. Remove the ice from the cooler and discard the remaining water.
  4. Use a handsaw, mallet, and clean chisel or flathead screwdriver to carve into cubes.

Boil Distilled Water Before Freezing

If you don't have room for a cooler in your freezer, no worries. You can also create clearer ice by boiling distilled water twice before you freeze it. To do this:

  1. Fill a clean pot with distilled water. Bring it to a boil and boil for five minutes.
  2. Cool with the lid on for 30 minutes.
  3. Boil again for another five minutes.
  4. Cool to warm and pour into an ice cube tray.
  5. Freeze.

Use a Clear Ice Maker

You can also purchase a fridge that makes crystal clear ice or use a freestanding ice maker appliance that makes extra clear ice. Follow manufacturers' instructions.

How to Store Clear Ice

Once you've made your clear ice, you'll need to store it properly if you're not using it right away to maintain its clarity. To do this, store the ice in the freezer in a sealed container. Don't overcrowd the container. If it is cloudy when you are ready to remove it, simply wash away the frost that has collected on the outside by giving it a quick rinse under the tap.

How to Make Cocktail Ice Garnish

Make pretty ice that adds to your cocktail's visual appeal by freezing attractive garnishes in the ice cubes you plan to drop in your drink. To do this, fill the ice cube tray half full with water and freeze. Remove from the freezer, add your garnish, and top with more water. Freeze again. Store in a covered container. Some items that make attractive ice garnishes include:

  • Edible flowers
  • Snippets of herbs
  • Chili peppers
  • Berries
  • Cucumber slices
  • Citrus peels or slices
  • Edible glitter
Garnished ice cubes

How to Make Flavored Ice Cubes

Flavored ice cubes can serve as a garnish and, as they melt, they won't dilute your drink but will add flavor instead. To do this, simply freeze a juice, beverage (such as tea or lemonade), mixer, infused simple syrup, or fruit and herb puree in ice cube trays and then drop them in your drinks. For example, a mint and lime juice puree would make a perfect frozen cube to drop in a mojito, or raspberry puree ice cubes would be delicious as they melted into a Moscow mule.

Cocktail Ice Dos and Don'ts

Here are some tips for making the most of working with cocktail ice:

  • Do keep the ice in the freezer until you are ready to use it.
  • Do strain ice that has been sitting out through a fine mesh sieve before adding to a drink or mixing it in a drink in order to drain away excess water.
  • Don't add the ice to the cocktail shaker or mixing glass until all other ingredients have been added.
  • Don't add ice serving ice to the glass until you're ready to strain in the mixed drink.
  • Do use the specific type of ice called for in the cocktail recipe, if there is one.
  • Do use the highest quality ice you can for mixing and serving cocktails; old or freezer burned ice or ice made from bad water can break a drink while ice made from good quality water can make it.
  • Do use bottled, distilled, or spring water to make your ice if your tap water is subpar.

Making the Most of Cocktail Ice

While ice may seem like almost an afterthought in cocktail making, the ice you use can affect many aspects of your finished drink. So if you're ready to take your cocktails to the next level, give some thought to the type of ice you use and how you use it.

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The Complete Cocktail Ice Guide