Ice is presented in many forms when it comes to cocktails. We see crushed ice for those delicious mint juleps or cobblers, symmetrical ice cubes stacked for a Tom Collins, or maybe you’re just at your local dive bar and they serve you a Jack and Coke with whatever ice their machine dumps out.
I think we can all agree, though, the most impressive type of ice is those large and beautifully shaped cubes (or spheres) for spirits on the rocks. Sometimes you may be able to watch the bartender cut the ice right in front of you for your cocktail. That attention to detail and presentation speaks volumes.
One detail you might notice right away is how clear the ice is. How is that ice so clear while my cheap ice trays at home make nothing but cloudy cubes? Is clear ice only for the classy high-end cocktail bars?
The answer to this question is no. There are a few methods for making clear ice at home; the amount of time, energy, and passion you have will determine which way works best for you. Although there are different methods to make clear ice, one thing they have in common is the application of directional freezing.
Thanks to an inquisitive cocktail-enthusiast named Camper English who applied the concept of how lakes freeze to the process of making ice, we can control how the ice freezes to achieve optimal clarity. Whether you want to make clear ice the labor-intensive way or the “let the freezer do the work” way, anyone can make clear ice at home.
BUT FIRST, SOME SCIENCE OF ICE!
If you want to achieve clear ice at home, it is important to understand the “science” behind the magic. Why is ice cloudy in the first place? Where does the cloudiness arise from? The cloudiness or clarity of your ice may largely depend on the temperature of the water you use.
Tap water at room temperature contains several dissolved impurities not visible to the naked eye. These impurities may include germs and bacteria; however, the term is used broadly and also includes many dissolved organic elements beneficial to the human body such as Calcium and Magnesium. To put it simply, anything in your water that is not water is considered an impurity.
When water freezes, it freezes from the outside layer inward, forcing the impurities to congregate around the center. There’s also a substantial amount of dissolved air in tap water so that, as water freezes, the air molecules are forced away from the ice into the remaining liquid. Air bubbles become trapped within the ice because the surrounding ice layer prevents escape.
The combination of impurities and air bubbles within the ice crystals create many uneven layers within the ice. The unevenness of these layers inhibits light from traveling in a straight line. Instead, light is scattered as it travels through the ice, creating that cloudy appearance. This is a direct result of water freezing from all directions. The impurities and air bubbles have to go somewhere, so they meet in the middle.
WHAT IF WE DIRECT WHERE ICE IMPURITIES GO?
This is where Camper English comes in and changes the way you make ice at home. He understands directional freezing– and soon, you will, too! A cocktails-and-spirits writer from San Francisco, California, English replicates how lakes freeze to achieve clear ice.
Lakes freeze from top to bottom because the surrounding land acts as insulation. Water cannot freeze from all directions, so the top layer begins to freeze and forces any impurities and air bubbles to the bottom where they freeze last. This is directional freezing: The result is a clear surface layer of ice. English uses a hard-sided cooler, the same one you bring to the beach or your friend’s backyard for a BBQ, and replicates it.
SO HERE’S THE HANDS-ON,TIME-CONSUMING METHOD OF CREATING CLEAR ICE
If you have the time and patience, and you feel comfortable wielding knives and mallets, here’s a great way to make clear ice at home:
- Fill a cooler with water and leave room at the top to allow the ice to expand.
- Place the cooler in the freezer with the lid off for at least 24 hours.
- After 24 hours, 90% of the water is frozen, and the other 10% is watery ice containing everything you don’t need.
- Pull the cooler out; in your sink, turn the cooler upside down and carefully remove the ice block.
- If the ice does not come out right away, you can place the cooler on a baking sheet and gently hammer along the sides to help release it. Clean off any shards or excess water.
- Hold the ice sideways and use a knife to puncture a hole into the bubble within the ice that contains the remaining liquid water. This helps temper the ice, which is then easier to cut because it is not as brittle as it is when you initially pull it from the freezer.
- Using a serrated knife (does not have to be anything fancy), carefully and as straight as possible, slice along all sides of the ice to help guide the ice where to break.
- Using the knife and mallet, place the knife in the indentations and use a mallet to hammer along the back of the knife to separate the ice.
- Once separated, hold it and cut (lengthwise) 2-inch wide blocks to make 2×2 individual cubes.
- Make sure to allow your ice 5 to 10 minutes to temper before you pour and enjoy your spirit of choice on the rocks.
Although this method takes time and forces you to get a little crafty, it’s a guaranteed way to achieve clear ice without spending much. You also have a greater yield of clear ice using a cooler. Store those beautiful works of art in a Ziploc bag in the freezer, and you’ll be good to go for a while and are prepared to party with style and class. If you love the idea of making your own ice cubes and want crystal clear ice, this method is perfect for you.
THE QUICKER, COST-EFFECTIVE TECHNIQUE FOR CLEAR ICE
The reason bartenders stock up on clear ice is due to the amount of time they have. That might not necessarily be the case for you. Also, knives and slicing ice are somewhat intimidating factors. Good thing there are ice molds designed for directional freezing!
Hassle-free with no knives or mallets needed, there are Metrokane Rabbit Clear Ice Cube Trays, which make four large ice cubes. There’s also the Crystal Clear Large Ice Cube Maker, which makes two 2” crystal-clear ice cubes. Although the yield is much smaller than the cooler method, these trays allow you to make clear ice hassle-free at home without having to harvest and cut ice yourself.
Coolers also take up a significant amount of freezer space, which most families cannot give up simply to have clearer ice. I certainly need space for the stacks of frozen meat and bagels that I keep constantly stocked! If you want more large ice cubes, simply empty the trays and refill them, and store your ice cubes in a Ziploc bag.
THE EXPENSIVE, FANCY OPTION FOR PROCURING CLEAR ICE… IF YOU HAVE THE MEANS TO DO SO
Feeling frivolous? There are several ice machines on the market, and the one you choose depends on how much you’re willing to spend. Ice is not cheap! And if you want clear ice, the cost just goes up. The Ice-O-Matic CIM0330HA ($2,598) can make up to 435 lbs. of clear ice cubes a day, while the Polar Temp IBM300 can make up to 300lbs of clear ice blocks a day and costs $4,524.
There are smaller machines that cost less than $200 and different style clear ice machines that fall in between $2,000-$4,000. The larger scale machines typically make smaller ice cubes. Unless you’re willing to spend a lot and keep up with maintenance, chipping away individual cubes from a large ice block is definitely the more cost-effective route while still producing enough yield for your business.
THE FINAL BREAKDOWN ON CLEAR ICE
If you’re a restaurant or bar owner, you don’t necessarily need a machine to do the job when you have perfectly capable bartenders! If guests are able to watch the ice being cut to order, that will add to the overall experience. Also, you’ll likely have a chain reaction where more guests begin to order a cocktail with a large ice cube. A lot of people order with their eyes, and if they see what they want, they get it!
If you have stepped into the home bartender realm (which many people have due to COVID-19) and want to level up your drinks, why not make clear ice? No impurities or air bubbles. Just crystal-clear cubes that look better, dilute better, and I swear, make the drink taste better!
You do not always have to go out to an upscale bar (but please still do!) to enjoy cocktails and spirits with clear ice. You can enjoy quality clear ice at home. The question is, do you want to get your DIY game on, or do you want to simply replace your ice trays you’ve officially deemed useless now? The choice is yours!