It’s a rare find in cocktail bars, restaurants, and most definitely in the home. But nugget ice (also called “Pebble”, “Pellet”, “Chewable” or even “Sonic” ice) has a near-cult following. Sonic (the fast food joint) invested in Scotsman ice machines across the franchise two decades ago and ice chewers nationwide have become addicted to the chewy, airy ice. (Don’t believe me? Here’s one of the dozens of Facebook pages I found dedicated to “Sonic Ice.”)
But what does that mean for cocktails? With limited budget and space, what’s the allure of yet one more type of ice behind the bar? Here’s the scoop (pun intended!)
So.. What is Nugget Ice?
According to Sonic ice lovers*, here’s what makes it different / better than other ice options:
- 1. It’s light and airy, so it floats at the top of your drink and distributes more evenly than cubed ice. (Note: all ice floats. So… yeah.)
- 2. It stays intact longer than crushed ice, getting softer over time, but not melting as quickly as crushed ice. (Armchair scientists suspect the air pockets provide an insulating affect.)
- 3. It is (apparently) incredibly satisfying to chew on. It doesn’t hurt your teeth, and one person compared it to chewing on a cloud.
*Comments found from old school internet discussions like this one. Not tested with science or personal experience.
Nugget Ice vs. Crushed Ice:
At first glance, nugget ice looks very similar to crushed ice. But a closer look reveals nugget ice is in small “nuggets” (ahem, no surprise here) but crushed ice is not. That’s because crushed ice is made from large cubes that have been crushed, but nugget ice is made from flaked ice that has been compacted into small “nuggets” (or pellets, or pebbles…). (More detail on how it’s made here.)
The result is that the ice “pellets” have quite a bit of air in them. These air pockets make it crunchy and chewable, but also allow the liquid of your drink to penetrate the cube. This (apparently) makes them even more desirable to ice-eaters, but also increases the surface area of the ice touching the drink, thus melting much more quickly than a cube. But since the nugget ice has been compacted into small “cubes”, there is less surface area than with crushed ice, making it melt more slowly.
When to Use Nugget Ice in Cocktails:
When should you consider using nugget ice for your cocktails? Good question.
1) If you serve a lot of Juleps and crushed ice cocktails
Sonic ice fanatics assure me, there is no Mint Julep like a nugget Ice Julep. The ice soaks up the drink and makes it even more refreshing and cooling.
2) If it’s really hot.
Crunching on nugget ice is apparently quite cooling – and serving cocktails with nugget ice will help keep your customers cool on a hot summer’s day.
3) If there are a lot of Sonic Ice fanatics in your Town:
Joking aside, Sonic ice has a cult-like following and it’s entirely possible that a reputation for having nugget ice may be fantastic marketing for your bar.
Sold? Here’s Where to get a Nugget Ice Maker:
Not convinced yet? Go find your nearest Sonic, get yourself a burger and a cup of ice. (Rumor has it that ice will cost you $0.10 for the cup.) Chomp away and make your call then.
Sold? Here’s how to get nugget ice for your bar:
There are several brands in the marketplace now, but the one that got Sonic its reputation for tasty chewable ice is the Scotsman. Other brands I’ve seen include the Ice-o-Matic (points for originality) and Manitowoc. Check with your trusty restaurant / bar supply store to see what they have.
Word of warning: in case you haven’t noticed, there is no one “industry standard” name for this style of ice. Different manufacturers call it different things: for example, Ice-o-Matic calls it “Pearl Ice” and Hoshizaki uses “Cubelet”. That said, the most common name I’ve seen is “Nugget”.
Home Nugget Ice Makers:
What a time to be alive! There are now TWO (yes, two) nugget ice makers designed for home ice chewing enthusiasts.
- The Opal Nugget Ice Maker: Got $500 to spare? The Opal Nugget Ice Maker is a great choice. It’s made for countertop use and can make 1lb of ice per hour.
- The Brilliance® Nugget Ice Machine: The price tag is very conspicuously missing from the website, which suggests this option may be a bit on the pricy side. But it is made by the very same company as the Sonic ice makers – and authenticity is worth something, right?
Nugget ice is notoriously difficult to DIY. While Jim Meehan has a video suggesting you can make nugget ice with a mallet and lewis bag, this isn’t consistent with the descriptions of “nugget ice” that I’ve found from true nugget enthusiasts.
According to ice crunchers of the internet, the closest you can come to DIY nugget ice (without the $500 or $3000 appliance) is by doing the following:
- 1. Freeze carbonated water (the fizziest you can find) in ice cubes.
- 2. Place in a glass or lewis bag
- 3. Whack each cube once. (Don’t go crazy! Just once to break it into smaller nuggets.)
You’ll have to ask your dentist if chewing on nugget ice is safer than chewing on ice cubes, but if you ask the internet it is much, much more satisfying. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see if my local Sonic sells Mint Juleps…