Ice is an important yet often underestimated ingredient in cocktails. As I’ve mentioned previously, it is generally a tool for chilling and diluting, both key elements of the experience of a good drink (though as you’ll learn if you keep reading, ice can be used for other purposes, as well).
The incorporation of ice is handled differently for different type of drinks. Cocktails consisting of all spiritous ingredients (liquors, vermouths, liqueurs, etc) are generally stirred with ice and then poured off, which allows for a very controlled amount of added water. Shaken cocktails, generally those that include fruit juice, syrups, or other ingredients requiring more vigorous emulsification, will contain more water and also air. Some cocktails (and spirits) will be served “up,” or without any ice in the glass; other are served over cubes, a single large cube, or even crushed ice–these different serving styles permit different levels of continued dilution of the drink over time.
After the fold: the importance of dilution, elevating ice to an art form, and a recipe for easy, freeze-y piña coladas!
First, a word about dilution. Besides adding “coolth,” ice also waters down cocktails as it melts. At first, this might sound like a terrible thing, but the addition of water is important for a couple reasons.
First and most obviously, water will help lower the proof of the drink, easing the unpleasant sensation of alcohol burn and making the beverage more palatable. Again, how the drink is prepared and served will affect how much water makes it into the finished product. For example, many tiki drinks featuring strong overproof rums will be served over crushed ice to mellow out the experience over time.
A second and somewhat counter-intuitive reason to dilute spirits and cocktails is that adding water can actually improve flavor, rather than minimize it, by releasing aromatic compounds at the same as it dampens the painful alcohol burn. As Harold McGee explains in the New York Times,
Both alcohol and aroma molecules are volatile, meaning they evaporate from foods and drinks and are carried by the air to the odor receptors high up in the nasal cavity.
Aroma molecules are also more chemically similar to alcohol molecules than they are to water, so they tend to cling to alcohol, and are quicker to evaporate out of a drink when there’s less alcohol to cling to.
This means that the more alcoholic a drink is, the more it cloisters its aroma molecules, and the less aroma it releases into the air. Add water and there’s less alcohol to irritate and burn, and more aroma release.
So, having that scotch on the rocks doesn’t make you a wimp–it gives you the opportunity to experience more nuanced flavors.
Now, if you want to get fancy about it, ice can actually do more than just chill and dilute. For example, you don’t have to use plain water–you could use a flavored liquid that will change the character of the beverage over time. Stretching the imagination even further, what if ice didn’t go in your drink–what if your drink was inside of ice? The Aviary in Chicago (from the geniuses behind Alinea) takes ice to whole a new level, as demonstrated in the following video. I mean, they have a dedicated “ice guy” who spends his whole work day freezing stuff:
Frozen Piña Coladas
I stole this ingenius recipe from Tokyo’s Bar High Five, and it’s a great example of getting ice to really work for you. Rather than blending liquid ingredients with H2O ice to achieve a slushy, frozen consistency, you make the ice out of your liquid ingredients and then blend it up. The result is a really rich, flavorful beverage that is both simple and impressive–perfect for parties.
You will need:
- Pineapple juice (unsweetened, as natural as you can find)
- Cream of coconut (I highly recommend the brand Coco Lopez. Coco Real was a decent substitute. Note that straight coconut milk won’t have the same effect.)
- Dark rum (something funky, like Myers or Coruba, is perfect. We also liked this with Smith & Cross and Appleton Estate)
- A blender (stick or regular)
- Silicone ice cube trays (though regular ones should work, too)
- The ratio for pineapple juice to cream of coconut is 4:1. 1 cup pineapple juice to 1/4 cup coconut cream should make about 10 one-ounce cubes, enough for two servings. Blend these two ingredients together until the mixture is consistent and then pour one ounce at a time into your ice cube tray.
- Freeze the cubes for at least three hours, but longer is better.
- After your cubes are frozen, combine then with your rum–two ounces of rum for every five cubes, or to taste.
- Blend until slushy, then pour into glasses and serve.
There is no reason this technique shouldn’t work with other ingredients (peach nectar and heavy cream with gin? Strawberry puree and chocolate syrup with vodka?), so experiment with proportions and have fun with it!
All photos by your truly. Thanks to my husband for being a hand model in the photo above.