Chilling & Dilution
Ice is arguably the most important of all cocktail ingredients. It is what transforms the mixture of booze and other assorted items into a finished cocktail. Ice is to cocktails what heat is to food. Without it, there would be no cocktail.
Chilling and Dilution
Ice's two primary contributions are chilling and dilution, which together form the crux of cocktail technique. The benefits of chilling go without saying. We all know that cold cocktails taste better. But dilution’s role is a little less obvious. Some view it negatively, as the culprit that excessively waters their drink down, which is always a huge bummer. But some dilution is essential to a cocktail. It brings out subtleties in the booze, rounds off their harsher edges and helps to bind the ingredients together. Dilution is the glue.
Chilling and dilution are inseparable. Whenever you get one, you get the other. Furthermore, they are also intertwined; a change in one will initiate a change in the other. For example, the colder a drink gets, the slower the ice will melt, and therefore the slower it will dilute, and vice versa. These two elements have a huge bearing on the success and failure of a drink. It doesn’t matter, how fancy your tools are, or how expensive your booze is. If a drink isn’t chilled enough, or is under/over-diluted, it will not taste good.
The Sweet Spot
The goal when mixing a drink is to manage chilling and dilution until you reach optimum levels of both, which is when the drink is as cold as possible but not under or over-diluted. Or as I like to call it, the sweet spot.
To consistently hit the sweet spot, you need to be aware of the various factors that can influence chilling and dilution and how fast they occur. There are two primary ones. The first one is whether you shake or stir. Shaking chills and dilutes much faster than stirring. You can read about this in much more detail, as well as how shaking or stirring relates to a cocktail’s general style, on the Shaking vs. Stirring page. The second factor is the type of ice you are mixing with, which is what we're concerned with on this page.
Below is a look at ice from all sorts of angles, including how its size and temperature will affect the rate of chilling and dilution, as well as the different types of ice used in cocktails and the best tools to make them with.
How Ice Melts and Why It’s Best of Chilling Booze
As we know, when ice is warmed above freezing temperatures - like say, when it’s dropped into a mixing glass containing the ingredients for a Martini - it will begin to melt. When ice melts, it melts right off its surface, because that is warmed first. So if you’re stirring that Martini, that liquid will be wicked away and dispersed into the drink, exposing the next layer to be warmed up and melted.
It’s this continual dispersion of near freezing water that makes ice such an effective chilling agent and why stirring faster chills and dilutes so quickly. It’s also why those whiskey stones, despite being very popular, don’t keep drinks cold very long. They only have one surface temperature and when that warms up it doesn’t melt away to uncover another colder layer underneath.
Large ice cubes melt slower than small ice cubes because they have less surface to area ratio.
To better illustrate this, imagine a glass full of large ice cubes and a glass full of small ice cubes. You will be able to fit far more small cubes in the glass. When both glasses are filled with water, the one with the small cubes will chill and dilute more quickly, because more ice will be in direct contact with the water.
All this is to say, the larger ice cubes you have, the slower they will melt, meaning you'll need to shake or stir for longer than you would with smaller cubes.
Any Kind of Ice Can Be Used For Mixing
(But Larger Cubes are Generally Better)
No matter what kind of ice you use - big, small, wet, dry - chilling and dilution will happen either way. There’s no such thing as one type of ice chilling or diluting a drink better than another kind of ice, it will just happen at different rates. That being said, large and/or dry ice cubes are generally easier to work with than small and/or wet cubes, and in some cases the former is clearly superior, for these reasons:
Smaller Wet Cubes Melt Precariously Quickly - With small cubes, if you're not careful you can accidentally over-dilute your drink. Because they melt so rapidly, the sweet spot's window is shrunk down and is very easy to overstep, and once you cross that line, there's no going back. Additionally, if your cubes have been sitting out a long time and are really wet, you might not even be able to get the drink as cold as you’d like because the ice will be so warm and slushy.
Larger Dry Cubes Give You a Wider Margin for Error - The slower melting time of large ice cubes stretches out the mixing time, which lengthens the sweet spots window, giving you more wiggle room. Dry ice cubes are also ideal because they can chill a cocktail down quickly without diluting it too much. This helps get drinks down to those negative temperatures. For this reason, when making cocktails at home, it’s best to keep the ice in the freezer right up until you need it, if you can. This is one advantage that home bars have over cocktail bars, where the ice is always sitting out in an ice bin.
Large Cubes Create Better Texture in Shaken Drinks - The difference between shaking a cocktail with a pile of tiny cubes verses a handful of large cubes is very apparent. Larger cubes are heavier and crash back and forth with more force, this creates more aeration - one of the primary benefits of shaking - and gives the cocktail a better texture.
Serving Over Large Cubes Won't Water a Drink Down - For serving drinks, larger cubes are hands down the better choice. They will melt slower, which keeps the drink colder for longer and waters it down more slowly. A win, win, win.
Basic Ice Cubes, aka Rocks
These are your standard, all purpose ice cubes. They can be used for any, and all of your cocktail ice needs. In general, they are around 1 inch in diameter.
This is ice that’s been broken down into smaller pieces. It can vary, ranging from tiny pearls to crunchy slush. Being so small, naturally it melts very quickly, which rapidly chills drinks to frigid temperatures, while also heavily diluting them. It's used primarily for serving cocktails, not mixing them. Crushed ice isn’t ideal for all cocktails, but for some, it is absolutely essential, most notably a Mint Julep. For others it can be a big upgrade, particularly tropically inspired, aka "tiki", cocktails. It also makes drinks look sublime.
Big Rocks, aka Large Ice Cubes
These are cubes that are around 2 inches in diameter, and used one at a time, also mainly for serving. They melt exceptionally slowly - at glacial pace you might say - and look extremely cool. They are best for sipping a single spirit straight on the rocks, or a stirred spirit-forward cocktail that you’re likely to nurse for longer, like an Old Fashioned.
Access to crushed ice is probably one of the biggest advantages cocktail bars have over home bars. We have a machine that makes heaps of perfectly shaped pebbles at our disposal (#3, in the photo), whereas at home, manufacturing crushed ice takes some elbow grease. But it’s not impossible. Here are the various ways you can obtain crushed ice:
1. Hand Crank Ice Crusher - This is what I use. Outside of an electric machine, it’s the best tool for making crushed ice that’s a uniform size. It’s not perfect to be sure. They’re bulky, only make enough ice for a couple drinks at a time and operating one is like playing with a stubborn Jack in the Box. But they do their job well and the ice pebbles come out nice and even.
2. Lewis Bag & Mallet - This method is nothing more than putting ice into a canvas bag and whacking it with a mallet. But the canvas is important. It absorbs moisture from the fast melting ice, keeping it relatively dry and avoiding a wet slushy mess. While it’s a rather abrasive method, it is simple, quick and effective. You can also make crushed ice in larger quantities, and let off a little steam in the process. The ice isn’t as pretty as it is with a hand crank crusher, and you risk getting some snow in there, but it's good enough for my taste.
3. Commercial Pellet Ice Maker - This is from one of those magic machines I mentioned above. I've used both Scotsman and Ice-O-Matic brands, which cost upwards of $2000. However, there are some ice crushers out there made for the home kitchen. I haven't used them, but they seem to be a good mid-range option. Here's one:
4. Cracked Ice - This isn’t quite a true substitution for crushed ice, but it's a very serviceable understudy in a pinch, and is the only one here that doesn't require any special tools. Cracked ice is nothing more than a larger ice cube broken apart into smaller pieces. You can crack ice with one of these ice tappers, but I’ve always just used a basic broad bowled barspoon (say that 5 times fast!) the one with the red cap. I also will crack a few ice cubes and add them into a mixing glass before stirring a cocktail to expedite chilling and dilution.
Basic Cubes, aka Rocks
Whenever the type of ice isn’t specified in a recipe, which will be most of the time, this is what you should use. There are several options, some are more ideal than others, but any will get the job done.
1. Common Ice Cube Tray - Despite being very low-tech, these flexible plastic trays make very reliable cocktail ice for shaking, stirring and serving. They’re a good size, shape and can easily be cracked with a spoon if need be. They are also easy to remove from the tray.
2. Silicone Perfect Cube Tray 1x1 (recommended) - These are your best bet for affordable, beautiful and perfectly square ice cubes at home. There are several options for molds available. I recommend the 1x1 inch size. You have to pop them out one at a time, which is a bit tedious, but by no means a deal-breaker. It helps to stockpile them.
3. Refrigerator Ice Dispensers - Ice made by refrigerator ice dispensers is not ideal for serving drinks because they’re on the smaller side. However, since they come directly from a the freezer they are nice and dry, which makes them great for stirring and shaking drinks. These are what I use to mix cocktails at home. An added bonus is you can reserve any nicer ice cubes you have for serving only.
4. Bag Ice - The plastic bags of ice you get at the grocery store are comprised of a few acceptable sized cubes, some snow and a couple massive melted and refrozen hunks of ice. This then prompts the famous slamming the bag on the ground technique, something I’ve always found satisfying. This ice is certainly inconsistent to say the least. But the decent cubes you do get are a good size for cocktails; you just have to pick them out. Plus, as annoying as those large pieces are, if you set them aside in your freezer, they make for great big rocks, see below.
Shaved Ice/Snow Ice (not pictured)
Shaved ice is a step finer than crushed ice. It is light and fluffy and has the consistency of snow. It is commonly made by a machine that scrapes a thin shaving of ice off of a large solid block.
The typical application for shaved ice is for fruity non-alcoholic frozen treats which are similar to Snow Cones. Yes, there is a difference, and ironically shaved ice is more snow-like, than Snow Cone ice. In fact, shaved ice connoisseurs like to point out that with Snow Cones, all the flavor sinks to the bottom, which anyone who's ever had a Snow (Sno) Cone can profess to. With true shaved ice, or as it’s called in Hawaii, shave ice (spelled with no “d”), the flavors are better retained.
Shaved ice is generally not ideal for most cocktails because it melts so quickly, though it’s essential for some, like the tiki-nerd classic Navy Grog ice cone.
The machine listed below is for home use and very affordable. But if you run across a need for shaved ice and don't have a machine handy, you can make a fairly comparable substitution by banging a Lewis bag into oblivion. Or you could just wait for a blizzard.
Naturally, ice's temperature is below freezing, otherwise it wouldn’t be ice. But how close it is to the threshold of melting back into a liquid will have a bearing on how fast it'll chill and dilute a drink.
If ice has been sitting out, say in an ice bucket, it will be warmer. Its surface will begin to melt and will glisten and shine; this is what we call "wet" ice. Wet ice will chill and dilute a cocktail more quickly.
On the other side of that coin, ice cubes that come right out of the freezer are totally frozen on the surface. They will have a frosty exterior and will stick to wet fingers, or your tongue. These are dry ice cubes. They are much colder and thus, will melt more slowly.
Big Rocks aka Large Ice Cubes
Also sometimes magisterially referred to as "large format ice", big rocks are another familiar feature of todays best cocktail bars, but unlike crushed ice, which takes some effort to recreate, making them is very easy. You just need a bigger tray.
1. Silicone Perfect Cube Tray 2x2 - Like the 1x1 tray, this is by far the easiest way to make nice big cubic ice. There are plenty of options out there; Trovolo is the most prominent brand.
2. Muffin Tins, or something similar - You don’t need to purchase anything to make big cubes. Filling up muffin tins with water will give you a handful of nice sized cubes in one pop. Preferably use one with wide, deep molds. You may need to run the bottom under warm water to dislodge them.
But it doesn’t have to be a muffin tin of course. Ice will freeze in anything, bread pans, cake pans, tupperware containers, you name it. Using a larger vessel is great for making an extra large cube that will melt slowly in a punch bowl over the course of a party. Just be careful when freezing ice in a plastic container that you use to store other foods. Plastic is porous and will take on other flavors. You don't want to add leftover chicken lo mein flavors to your ice. And, of course, stay away from glass.
3. Ice Sphere Molds - Serving a cocktail over perfectly shaped spheres of ice ratchets a its coolness factor up to 11. But to be clear, there’s nothing empirically superior about ice spheres. Just superior aesthetics. There are several molds available that make very solid, if not absolutely perfect, spheres. I use this one below and it works just fine. For the real ice ball McCoy you need to pony up the cash for an ice sphere press, which is described on the other side of the page.
4. Bag Ice Lumps - As I mentioned above, most store bought bags of ice contain large hunks of melted and refrozen ice. These can make very effective big rocks. Just pick them out and keep them in the freezer. Dislodging them is another matter, and they usually take some shaping. An ice pick is helpful.
Ice Ball Press (Not Pictured) - I’ve personally never used one of these because they cost an arm and a leg, which is why it isn't pictured here. They use gravity to press down on large ice cubes to melt them into the shape of a perfect sphere. It takes about 1-2 minutes, and is pretty remarkable, here's a good look at one in action.
The cheapest options run around $160, which make spheres that are a little over 2 inches in diameter. The ones that make 2.5-2.8 inch spheres, which are definitely nicer, can be upwards of $500. Coolness, it seems, comes at a price.
But if it's worth it to you, this will seriously elevate your cocktail operation. It also makes for an unparalleled gift for a cocktail lover. If you really want to pull out all the stops, use clear ice in one of these puppies. Clear ice certainly is an undertaking - I'll release a page about it in the coming months. But the way I see it, if you’re ponying up that kind of cash for an ice ball maker, you might as well go the extra mile.
5. Kold Draft Ice - Ever wonder how cocktail bars seem to have an endless supply of beautiful 1 inch cubes? Two words: Kold Draft. This is the brand of ice machine that pumps out those perfect cubes, which are actually 1 1/4 inches. These babies will cost you a few thousand dollars, but if your bar is looking to serve top of the line drinks, it’s a worthy, or even essential, investment. There are several models available. Here’s one good option, you can peruse the others on their site.
Hotel Ice (not pictured) - This is the wet, chippy ice you get from the ice machine in that little side room with the vending machine on your hotel floor. It’s great for chilling down Coke to pair with a slice of Pizza, but for cocktails it’s pretty much a worst-case scenario. In the industry, we call it “shitty ice”. The only task this ice is not completely unfit for is stirring, but you better strain it off quickly. But of course, if this is your only option, shitty ice is better than no ice.
Types of Ice
& How they are Made
Below is a directory of some of the different kinds of ice that factor into cocktail-making, along with the different trays, tools and machines used to create them. While ice comes in many shapes and sizes, there are just three basic types of ice to be aware of.
Purchase - This is one of a few options out there:
Cocktails Can Be Chilled Below Freezing!
It’s true! You can get stirred cocktails down to around -7 degrees Fahrenheit, especially if you chill your mixing glass. You can monitor this with one of these thermometer spoons. Shaken drinks can even get a little colder.
The reason this is possible, in a nutshell, is because alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than water, so it is able to draw more heat out of the liquid because entropy lowers the freezing point of water in an alcoholic solution. I know that last sentence didn't make a lot of sense. For the whole story, check out the ice chapter in Dave Arnold’s aforementioned Liquid Intelligence. Regardless, cold drinks = better drinks (to a point of course).
For More, Read Dave Arnold
Full disclosure, I learned much of the information on this page from Dave Arnold's work. Check out his wonderful book Liquid Intelligence. It is a cocktail science extravaganza full of in depth explorations and experiments. Also, his articles on ice's effects on chilling and dilution rates when shaking vs. stirring are essential reading for cocktail nerds:
The Key Ice Variables:
Size and Temperature
There are multiple factors one could consider when appraising ice. But for basic cocktail application, you'll really only need to concern yourself with two: how big or small the cubes are, and whether they are shiny and wet or frosty and dry.
Purchase - This is one of many.
Wintersmiths Ice Chest (Not Pictured) - Another option for clear ice spheres and/or cubes is this rather ingenious looking product from Wintersmiths. I haven’t tried it myself, but it seems to work based on this video, and is certainly most cost effective considering how pricey ice ball presses are.
Common Mixing Times
Since the purpose of this page is to endow you with the information you need to assess and adjust your mixing times, you should probably be aware of what kind of time variables we’re talking about. These are examined more closely on the Shaking vs. Stirring page.
In general, you will want to shake for 8-10 seconds with basic ice cubes, perhaps a bit shorter or longer in extreme conditions, while stirred cocktails typically take about 18-25 seconds, but again, it can be more or less. Stirring is the more fickle of the two, which you can read more about here.
As you can see, these windows are quite narrow. It’s hard to believe a second or two of mixing time can have that much of an impact on a drink. But trust me, within these ranges is a wide array of cocktail outcomes, some good and some not so good.
Having Said all That, Don’t Overthink it.
I know I’m a total hypocrite. Clearly, I think these things to death. But really, in the end, just trust your gut. No matter how much measuring and assessing you do of all the variables, there’s no way to quantify exactly how long you need to shake or stir a drink.
Use your best judgment and remember to keep tasting. It is without a doubt the best way to understand the effects of chilling and dilution over the course of mixing a cocktail.
Cup the cube in the center of your palm with a flat side facing up.
Whack it firmly in the center with the back of a spoon with a large bowl. Isn't not about hitting it hard, it's about hitting it in the right spot.
How to Crack Ice