Is it better? Not really. But it sure does look great.
There’s a lot of talk nowadays about crystal clear ice as opposed to common cloudy ice that comes from a freezer. I get it. Clear ice gorgeous and one of the pinnacles of cocktail splendor. But just to be clear (so to speak) upfront, it’s most desirable attributes are by and large presentational. Clear ice won’t make your drinks taste better, they’ll just look better. There’s anything wrong with that, of course. I’d use clear ice all the time if I could. Just remember that is it about aesthetics first and foremost. If obtaining it is worth the effort to you, which is not unsubstantial, go for it.
Why Does Ice Freeze Cloudy or Clear?
Ice becomes cloudy because air bubbles and other various impurities become trapped in the ice. Ice will only be clear if it freezes slowly in one direction. The common analogy is the freezing of a lake. The water is chilled only from above, not on the sides or below. As the ice crystals slowly form, the air bubbles and gases are pushed out. Conversely, in a freezer, ice is being chilled from all sides, so those air bubbles can’t escape and eventually becomes ensnared.
Practical Benefits of Clear Ice
While clear ice’s best feature is certainly it’s appearance, it does have a few tangible benefits which we should acknowledge. It doesn’t shatter as easily, which some say makes it more reliable to shake with because unpredictable shards from cloudy could potentially offset chilling and dilution rates. Also, clear ice is altogether denser so it will technically melt more slowly than cloudy ice will when those air bubbles harbors are exposed. But, to be honest, I think those factors are marginal at best and you’d be hard pressed to notice any different in the finished cocktail.
How do You Get Clear Ice?
Most clear ice in cocktail bars is made is manufactured by an ice company, or perhaps another bar, and delivered. This is ice is made by a machine in 300 pound solid blocks which are then cut down into cubes. The popular brand is Clinebell. The bad news? They cost over $5000.
These freeze the water from the bottom, the opposite of a lake, and keep it circulating so nothing is trapped in the center. The finished product confines the impurities just to the top layer, which can be lopped of to reveal an immaculately translucent specimen. This is how ice used for ice sculptures is also made. Here’s a look at some of those giant cubes being made.
Clear Ice at Home
If you was clear ice at home and don’t want to spend the $5000+ on a Clinebell, you need channel you’re inner Macguyver. It is cumbersome to say the least. But if you’re determined, read on.
The best method for small scale clear ice is to fill a small cooler with water and put in the freezer with the top off. Because the cooler is is insulated on all sides the water will only freeze from the top down, and do so slowly. This can take 24-48 hours, depending on how big the cooler is and how powerful the freezer is. The key is take to cooler out of the freezer before it freezes all the way through. Once it does the trapped air will expand in a burst of cloudiness from the bottom and contaminate much of the clear ice above. So keep an eye on it. You can also use another large container and cover it will some kind of insulator. I jerry-rigged this with an insulated lunch bag.
Only about half of this giant cooler cube will be usable, the bottom part will have to be removed. It will contain water so you’ll want to do it in a basin of some kind or in the sink. Once you have your clear block you’ll then have to cut into cubes that will fit in a glass. Which is surprisingly easy to learn how to do.
For this job you need a cerated bread knife and it’s helpful to have an ice pick. You’ll probably also want a pair of clean working gloves, preferably with a rubber palm.
First let it sit to temper for about 15 minutes or so until it’s nice and shiny. Colder ice is brittle, while warmer ice will split more easily. Slide the cerated back and forth over when you want to cut, creating a seam, kind of like scoring a piece of meat. The seam will only be a millimeter or two deep. To make the cut, tap the knife firmly with a hammer or mallet - perhaps the same one yo use with your lewis bag. Don’t hit it too hard. Keep going up and down the blade and eventually the ice will splits cleanly down the seam. You’ll get a feel for it as you go.
This cutting method can also be used to cut large cloudy cubes. They will splinters and shatter a little more, but not to the point that they are unusable. The cubes will just be a little less uniform.
Eventually I'll put together a video the clear ice at home process. But in the meantime, here’s a good example of it from freezing to cutting.