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Most of us don’t give a second thought to the way we make ice to go with our drinks. But a little extra care with those cubes can make all the difference, as Richard Woodard explains
What do you need for the perfect gin and tonic? Premium gin with just the right balance of alcohol and botanicals? Check. Quality tonic such as Fever-Tree or Fentimans to complement and enhance? Yup. Wedge of fresh lime for decoration and citrus bite? Sure. Decent highball glass to allow all those flavours to mix and mingle? Got it. And ice… Well, ice is just ice, isn’t it?
Not quite. The process of freezing H2O might seem simple enough, but how you do it – and how you use it – can have a huge effect on the finished drink. Get it right and you may not even notice it, but you will have a perfectly balanced drink that stays cool and tastes the same right down to the bottom of the glass. Get it wrong and that same drink will taste funny, lose flavour through dilution and – worst of all – turn tepid in your hand.
Now, you can go to extremes here. Ice-fixated cocktail maestros, such as Hidetsugu Ueno of Tokyo’s Bar High Five, swear blind by the purest water, which is subjected to multiple filtration for extra purity and then slow-frozen over a three-day period to a temperature of -20˚C. The result is a glass-clear block which, if you’re a dab hand with a pocket-knife like Ueno-san, can be carved into all manner of elegant and intricate shapes.
For most of us, such efforts are more likely to end in a dash to the first-aid box or the nearest A&E. But panic not, because there are a few rather more straightforward steps that can help you to ensure that the ice is right…
Anyone who thinks all water tastes the same has clearly not supped from the average suburban tap. Chlorination is the most obvious culprit here – believe me, it can destroy a drink – but hard water has a high mineral content, and this too can impart a distinctive flavour. A simple Brita water filter (from £12, www.brita.net/uk) does an acceptable job, but if you’re a real purity purist, use bottled mineral water. The makers of Fiji, for instance, claim it is free of all environmental pollutants and untouched by human hand (www.fijiwater.co.uk).
One thing to remember: big is beautiful. Smaller ice cubes melt more quickly, diluting the drink and allowing its temperature to rise. So while modern ice cube trays may be delightfully dinky, they don’t work half as well as those fiddly, scratchy aluminium jobs from the 1970s. Faringdon (£7.99, available on Amazon and elsewhere) makes a model with a handy lever for easy extraction. Commercial bags of ice from supermarkets and drinks shops are fine. But avoid cubes with hollow centres: like smaller cubes, they tend to melt too quickly.
The look of many a great drink has been ruined by milky-centred cubes but, if you’re making your own, crystal-clear rocks are not easy to achieve, even with filtered tap water. With time and patience, you can freeze, partially thaw, then refreeze your cubes a few times – the process forces oxygen out of the cubes and achieves a much clearer result. One more thing. Don’t leave your ice tray next to an opened box of fish fingers, for instance. Even at such low temperatures, ice can absorb odours. And who wants to drink a G&T with a faint whiff of haddock?
The most basic rule here is: use lots of ice. And then add some more. It’s a common misconception that the more ice you put in a drink, the weaker it will be. To use a technical term, this is utter poppycock. Making sure your ice is dry and slightly sticky to the touch, rather than wet and already melting, fill your glass to overflowing before mixing your drink. This way, the ice will melt more slowly, keeping the drink super-cold and inhibiting dilution and consequent loss of flavour.
Unless you have the budget and the space of the average style bar, bespoke ice machines are out of the question. Smaller, domestic machines are available from Amazon and specialists (expect to pay around £120), but their reliability and efficiency are questionable at best. But when it comes to bashing the stuff around to create, say, perfectly crushed ice for that authentic mint julep, it’s a different matter: there’s any number of manual and automatic options out there. I’ve used a hand-cranked chrome crusher for years but, frankly, it can be too much like hard work. A good-quality electric jug blender (£120, see www.cuisinart.co.uk) is quick and does a better job. Alternatively, you can simply load your ice into a canvas bag, grab a rolling pin and smash the living daylights out of it – a method that is refreshingly low-tech and incredibly satisfying at the same time.
This feature was published in the summer 2011 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.