Ice: Time to Start Paying Attention

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"Ice is an interesting subject for contemplation," wrote Henry David Thoreau in his famous treatise on life and solitude, Walden. I couldn't agree more, especially when it comes to cocktails. The fact is that one to two thirds of your drink might be water, excluding the water content already in the base spirits themselves (sometimes known as eau-de-vie, uisge beatha, or vodka, all of which harken back to the phrase, "water of life").

So it's hard to imagine that on one fateful day, a man walked into a bar and, in true drug dealer style, insisted that the bartender try the first block for free. It really sounds like the beginning of a joke.

Thoreau marveled at Walden being used as an ice dispenser: "Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well."

That man was Frederic Tudor, also know as the "Ice King." When he began his venture in the early 19th century, ice was hardly a common ingredient in everyday drinks. Tudor's idea was to sell ice to the Caribbean, a plan that would melt nine-tenths of his stock and that initially encouraged chilly reactions (oh, come on I couldn't resist). Even his brother, a partner in the self-funded venture, admitted defeat.

Linda Rodriguez in her very informative article on Tudor for Mental Floss quotes The Boston Gazette from February 10, 1806: "No joke. A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation." Such is how visionaries are sometimes received, with great suspicion and disbelief.

Frederic persisted and eventually shipped his product as far as Havana and India, and ice, an abundant resource and perhaps one of the easiest recipes to follow--add water and freeze--is a now multi-billion dollar business, even as a shell of what it once was. Thoreau marveled at Walden being used as an ice dispenser: "Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well."

Yet the question of how to use ice is shrouded in mystery to the layman. Common instructions for cocktails, my own included, read: "Combine ingredients, add ice, and shake." I'm sorry, because this doesn't help if you're not a professional or accustomed to blending drinks. Then there are the fanciful ice balls, diamonds and the inclusion of seven kinds of ice behind the bar that take a riddle and rap it in the proverbial enigma.

Dilution from shaking generally adds between a half-ounce to two ounces of water to a drink depending on the amount of ice used and duration of said shaking, among other factors (ingredients used, temperature of ice, music played). Between 12 to 20 seconds of vigorous shaking yields around one to one-and-a-half ounces of water, which, in my opinion, is ideal for sours such as the Daiquiri. However, the jury is out on ideal alcohol by volume and dilution.

So, I've realized that from now on cocktail recipes should list the amount of water. This is easily measured by pouring the recipe into a measuring cup at first to test your shaking prowess (please serve it directly in the glass and save the measuring cup for your demonstrations). Remember to measure the ingredients to begin with and subtract that amount by total volume to get added water content.

At the very least this "interesting discussion" should be expounded upon. I don't necessarily expect cocktail menus to list the ingredients--rum, sugar, lime juice, and water--but I certainly do think we need to pay more attention to the most common ingredient in cocktails: ice.

Here's a revised recipe for the Daiquiri:

    • 2 ounces rum (I prefer an aged rum)
    • ¾ ounces lime juice
    • ¾ ounces simple syrup (I prefer Turbinado or cane sugar versus white sugar)
    • 1 ¼ ounces distilled, or filtered water added by shaking

Combine ingredients, shake vigorously until desired dilution is achieved, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Presented by

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.

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