There are four cocktail ingredients: spirits, bitters, sugar and water — which in most cases, means ice. This fourth component brings the cooling factor, which is perfect for the summertime, but also dilution. Dilution is the amount of water that melts into your cocktail while it is being shaken or stirred. Dilution affects the strength of flavour and the ABV, which understandably, makes people wary of it.
Why Do We Use Ice in Cocktails?
Too much ice is a bad thing. Flabby, watery drinks are not cool (literally), but water is one of the four ingredients of cocktails for a reason: it releases flavour. You want just enough cool water to tempt out lighter notes from base spirits. Like adding a drop of water to your dram, this releases both scent and floral, citrus and botanical flavour notes, making your drink taste more complex and exciting.
This History of Ice in Cocktails
What is now a simple and easy to make ingredient was once a hard-to-find treat for the wealthy in society.
Ice in Unlikely Places
The Egyptians used to rapidly evaporate cool water, which would sometimes result in ice. You can imagine this might cause some excitement in such a warm and humid country. But this method of making ice wasn’t always guaranteed, so when it occurred, then it would be given to the highest people in power to be savoured.
Following Egypt’s ice discovery, Iran wanted to find their own ways of freezing
water. Ice pits, or ‘yakhchāl’ in Persian, were designed by engineers. They were large domed buildings that were often two stories tall, with an equal amount of space underneath that held ice and kept it cool through airflow, nighttime desert temperatures and rapid cooling. By Building these domes by aqueducts, the Persians could better control the production of ice.
Ice Comes to Europe
A few centuries later, wealthy Romans and Greeks began filling ice houses with snow and ice from the Alps. With such well-crafted buildings, using tightly packed straw and wood for insulation, the production of ice was made much more efficient. The ice houses were spread throughout Europe at the height of the Roman Empire but fell into disuse when the empire fell.
It was inevitably Italian Epicureans who brought back the concept of ice as a treat and made it trendy in the 16th century. The French borrowed the tradition from Italy and introduced ice as an extravagance. Henry III would display piles of ice and snow when entertaining and even chilled bottles of wine. This was scoffed at by the rest of Europe, who saw the use of ice to cool drinks as a mark of excessive luxury. However, their snubs didn’t last long, and soon European countries were partaking in this process, adding ice to every drink they could think of.
The Entrepreneurial Ice Trade
Like most new trends, this one carried over to the United States. After Thomas Jefferson saw ice houses on his European travels he built an ice house in Monticello. George Washington was encouraged to do the same and perfected his ice house in his Virginia home.
Yet, ice was the space plane of its time; limited to the richest only. Those who sipped away at a cold drink or enjoyed an ice cream made with ice, not snow, were enraptured by the lavishness of the indulgent experience.
For example, Frederic Tudor built an entire ice shipping business after devouring ice cream at a picnic. After a slow start, his company developed a method to harvest ice with horse-drawn saws. This lowered the price of ice, making it accessible to the masses. Soon, ice houses were all over the USA, with insulated carriage and refrigerated cars for trains emerging to allow ice to be transported. Ice was shipped as far as India for the gin and tonics.
Bartenders Start Experimenting
Throughout the mid-19th century, breakthroughs in cold storage meant that ice could be kept in small compartments in stores, bars, restaurants and homes. American businessmen began playing with ice and an ingredient, adding a flair to mixed drinks. Many marvelled at how ice was flaunted to add a little something extra to beverages, from frosting over metal cups to shaved ice on top of cobblers. In 1806, these drinks were first described as cocktails in The Balance, Columbian Repository.
Through experimentation, ice was used to add different dimensions to cocktails. They developed different methods for adding ice — shaking, straining, stirring, and playing with ice shapes and sizes. With lots of exciting new flavoured syrups doing the sweetening, plenty of bittering agents, like European style vermouths, Angostura and American bitters, and ice doing the diluting, customers were left with memorably refreshing cocktails to sip. Many classic cocktail recipes were born, and this period is now referred to as the Golden Age of Cocktails.
Now ice is a fundamental part of bartending. With advances in electrical refrigeration, it’s easy to make your own ice. There’s no great technical skill needed, just an ice cube tray and a freezer, but you can learn to create and carve unusual and technically tricky ice too.
Shaken or Stirred, Straight Up or on the Rocks: Which Method is Best?
Dilution begins with a simple premise. The smaller the core area of the ice the quicker it will melt. Surface area can also impact the temperature change of the ice. So if you have ice with a hole in the middle, like the supermarkets stock, your ice will melt faster because the central hole surface areas adds to the outer surface area, and both are hit with the ambient temperature of a room or drink.
Shaking causes friction and impact that breaks the ice up into smaller, easy-to-melt shards nice and fast. So we tend to shake cocktails that need a quick frost and can take a bit of dilution from the melted ice. Stirring cools the drink slower, but is a far better way of controlling the dilution. How much dilution you get comes from the length of time you’re stirring for, and that is an easy to observe measure.
Likewise, serving a drink straight up will prevent any extra dilution while you’re drinking it, whereas serving a cocktail on the rocks means you’ll get added dilution from the ice cubes as you go. Shaved, cracked or crushed ice melts fast at first, but once it compacts into a large lump, it will keep a drink cool for ages. Hand carved, glass-sized ice cubes or spheres have the largest frozen core and melt the slowest.
There are plenty more videos you can use to perfect your bartending technique on our bartending basics page!