The Final Ingredient

My 13-month-old son loves to watch me shake cocktails.  The cocktail part he doesn’t get, obviously, but the shaking — that rocks his world.  By his age, toddlers have picked up a scant vocabulary that helps them get through the day.  For my son, it’s “Momma”, “Poppa”, “Nana” (Grandma or banana, given the situation), “Ach” (avocado), and so forth.  Apparently, cocktail shaking is also enough of an event for him that it merits an early-learned moniker:  “Ice!”.  Even with his bootstrapped English, the boy knows where the show lies in the show.  When we think cocktails, we think shaken; when we think shaken, we think of the clangity clang music of ice.

Ice is the starter pistol, the 3-2-1-GO! of a mixed drink.  Once you add the ice, you better be ready to pour.  So, following good practice, I always add the ice last.  This way, if I happen to become distracted (I have a 13-month-old boy), the rest of the ingredients can sit, without fear of dilution, until I return to finish the job.  Sometimes, that’s hours later.  Sure, many will tell you to pour everything over the ice as you assemble a drink; however, when ice joins the party, it’s like hiring a contract killer that you can’t cancel.  Should you change your mind, all bets are off.

To understand how to best use ice in mixed drinks, there is one simple thing to keep in mind: ice is an ingredient.  Ice is not just there to chill a drink, it’s as important a part as the spirit or anything else.  In strained drinks, be they shaken or stirred, ice accomplishes two things:  it chills the drink to a nice arctic level, and it dilutes the drink.

This second point is an important one.  Diluting a mixed drink slightly takes off some of the rough edges and gives all the other ingredients a common base in which to mingle.  Too much dilution spoils a drink.  For the most part, over-diluting your drink isn’t going to be an issue if you shake/stir and strain.  Key factors to consider, however, are a) size of the ice; and, b) energy put into the mixing.  The smaller the ice, the faster it dissolves.  The more more energy put into the mixing, the faster the ice dissolves.  Thus, a slow stir with large cubes will produce a less diluted drink that a vigorous shake with chipped ice.

When to shake and when to stir?  The prevailing wisdom is to stir when all the ingredients are crystal clear and shake when more opaque items like citrus juice are included.  Shaking also produces an “effervescence”, according to Dale DeGroff, and should be used whenever the final drink would benefit from that (think Daiquiri or Margarita).  Typically, I shake more than I stir.

The next question is with regard to ice left in or added to a drink.  Again, the rules here are the same.  Chilling and dilution. If the drink is the be quaffed quickly, ice can be spared (I don’t care for ice in my Cocktails).  If the drink is to be sipped, enjoyed on a hot day, or otherwise meant to linger, ice is probably in order.  How you add ice will determine the final drink experience.  For a drink that needs cooling but not much dilution, the larger the ice the better.  Most proper classic bars today will either hand-chip their own ice blocks or contract with a company that specializes in cocktail ice.  While I enthusiastically applaud both practices, they can be impractical for the home bar.

Silicone Ice Trays
Silicone Ice Trays

Disliking the stale, banana-shaped ice put out by my refrigerator, I purchased a couple of silicone trays that make nice 1-inch cubes.  I’d like a bigger size, but these work well.  The shape is appealing, and a few fit cozily into a rocks glass.  Of course, filtered or bottled spring water with a neutral flavor is always the way to go.

As we’ll see, some drinks benefit from other ice presentations.  Fizzy, tall drinks prefer crushed ice.  Punches call for large blocks or rings that dissolve over time.  The key here is that the punch is stronger at first — helping to get the party started — but weaker later on, once the ice has dissolved more, ensuring that the drive home is a safer one.

However you shake (or stir) it, the proper application of ice to a mixed drink is as important as the proper application of heat is to cooking.

Esoterica: As America expanded west, ice was an increasingly important factor in the spread of civilization.  Soon, ice production became cheaper and more localized, allowing ice to be used in such whimsical fashions as chilling beverages.  What better way to celebrate the conquering of the West than enjoying an iced drink thousands of miles away from the nearest metropolis. Of course, those cold, cold libations were all fine-and-dandy until ice met tooth.  Cavity-stricken, decayed tooth, that is.  Ouch!  Fortunately one Marvin C. Stone solved this problem in 1888 by inventing the modern drinking straw.  Ice and tooth could now be safely kept apart while one’s cooling elixir was sipped down.


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