The Right Ice for Your Cocktail

Beyond the Cube:  Spheres, Spears and Other Options Can Enhance a Drink

Large spheres of ice will melt more slowly.
Large spheres of ice will melt more slowly.  Tim Soter for The Wall Street Journal

An important ingredient in cocktails and mixed drinks sometimes gets overlooked, even by bartenders—the right ice.

Noble W. Harris, general manager of the Manhattan restaurant The District Tap House, believes ice is the cornerstone of any mixed drink.  It can help mold and change how we experience a cocktail, from the first sip to the last.

“It’s opening up new doors” for bartenders, says Mr. Harris, who has spent 20 years bar-tending or conceptualizing drinks selections for restaurants such as Bix in San Francisco and Dylan Prime Steak House in New York City.  Ice offers different options to dilute drinks, he says, and can “chill things down in different speeds.”

It provides more control over “how the flavor will react throughout the whole drink, not just in the first sip,” he says.

Size is important. The larger the ice, the less diluted a drink gets. This is especially important if you’re a slow sipper. A drink can be “the perfect temperature for one minute, but from then on, it’s getting less cold and more room-temperature, and it’s effectively not as good,” Mr. Harris says. “You get into a conversation and your drink becomes warm and it’s not nearly as delicious.” A large piece of ice will melt slowly and keep the drink nicely chilled longer, he says.

Big spheres of ice that fit snugly in a squat lowball glass work well with drinks that taste better after sitting for a while, such as a Manhattan, an old-fashioned or a little Scotch, Mr. Harris says.  The ice won’t melt too quickly as the drink breathes.  They’re “also really nice to look at,” he notes.  Store-bought silicone ice molds can be used to make different shapes.

For tall, narrow Collins or highball glasses, Mr. Harris likes to use long rectangular “spears” of ice, that are about 1 inch wide and 4 inches long.  “It’s a very cool presentation” and also works well with the drink as it melts slowly, he notes.

Mr. Harris generally uses shaved ice for stronger drinks.
Mr. Harris generally uses shaved ice for stronger drinks.  Tim Soter for The Wall Street Journal

There are occasions for shaved ice.  Stiff drinks such as mint juleps need dilution from fast-melting ice in order to be “palatable,” Mr. Harris says.  Generally he only uses shaved ice for strong cocktails.

Mr. Harris likes to add extra flavors to a cocktail via flavored ice such as rosemary lemonade, ginger or apple juice, for example.  “Right now I have some watermelon cubes in the shape of long cylinder tubes,” he says.  “We do a very simple drink with mint, vodka, a little bit of lemon juice and Prosecco, and the flavored cube really transforms the experience throughout.”

When adding flavor using ice cubes, Mr. Harris likes to complement what’s already in the glass.  “Watermelon cubes go fantastic with any white spirit.  You could add it to white rum, gin, vodka, a little bit of citrus and a little bit of sugar,” he says.  Watermelon cubes are also festive:  Hosts can set out flavored cubes along with white spirits like tequila, vodka and gin, as well as mint and citrus juices, so that guests can make their own cocktails, he notes.

Whiskeys, aged tequilas and dark rums tend to go better with “winter flavors” such as stone fruits, ginger, peach and apples, Mr. Harris says.  He makes an apple juice-and-ginger ice cube that goes with Scotch.  “You get a very wintertime, spicy, almost Christmas-y drink,” he says.

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Mike Price, chef and co-owner of the Clam in New York City, explains why certain cocktails are served with crushed ice vs. cubes.  Photo:  Jennifer Weiss for The Wall Street Journal

Square ice cubes about an inch and a half high work fine in most cocktails, Mr. Harris says.  But he makes sure they have perfect clarity, often using filtered water for a “clearer, more translucent ice cube than non-filtered tap water.”  Another trick for making ice cubes clear is to start by pouring in warm water instead of cold.

Once the ice is made, Mr. Harris says make sure it doesn’t stay in the freezer too long.  “If you have a packed freezer with a ton of food, it’s going to start pulling some of those flavors into it,” he says.  Unless the freezer contains only ice, he generally tosses unused ice out every two to three days.

The No. 1 mistake inexperienced bartenders make is not using enough ice, Mr. Harris says.  “Some people see a bartender filling the glass with ice and think he’s trying to be stingy about how much alcohol goes into the glass.  But we pack the glass with ice because it needs it.  There’s nothing worse than a gin and tonic where after two minutes, all the ice has melted,” he says.  “You don’t get the proper flavor.”


Watermelon Cubes

Puree Watermelon and strain seeds. Freeze in any shape.

Lemonade Thyme Cubes

1 part water

1 part fresh lemon

1 part half and half simple syrup

Fresh garden thyme

Mix lemonade and put in freezer trays with thyme sprigs and freeze.


The District 75

1.5 oz gin

.75 oz elderflower syrup

.75 oz fresh lemon

5 mint leaves

Top with Prosecco

Muddle lemon and mint in mixing glass; add ice, syrup and gin.  Shake and strain over watermelon cube into collins glass.  Top with Prosecco.  Garnish with mint sprig.

The Herb Garden Spritz

1.5 oz Vodka

.5 oz Local honey

.5 oz Fresh Lemon

Build in collins glass over lemonade thyme ice cube and top with soda.  Garnish with lemon twist and fresh rosemary.

Write to Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan at cheryl.tan@wsj.com