Why the Shape of the Ice in Your Drink Matters

Yes it’s all frozen water, but the kind of ice in your drink changes the whole experience.

Whiskey being poured over an ice ball in a glass
Photo: Sebastian Vera / Getty Images

Forget shakers, tongs, picks, and glassware — ice is one of the most essential elements into making a good drink, whether it's a tart and sweet lemonade, a perfect Old Fashioned, or a sipping portion of rum. Ice is as important to your drink as salt is to your cooking, and so it makes sense that you'd want to be picky about what kind of ice you use for your drink. Not only is having ice essential to keeping your drink pleasantly chilly, the kind of ice you choose affects how watered down your drink is going to be. Sure, it's all frozen water, but different shapes of ice provide different textural experiences. The shape of the ice in your drink matters.

So what shape should you choose for your drink? It depends on what you want your drink to taste like. "For the vast majority of cocktails, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, you should go with cubed ice, ideally about one inch by one inch," says Katie Stryjewski, spokesperson for Mumm Napa and author of Cocktails, Mocktails, and Garnishes from the Garden. "This is also the perfect size to use when shaking or stirring your drink. These larger cubes mean less surface area than cracked or crushed ice, so they don't melt too quickly. They keep your drink cold without diluting it too much. If a recipe says to serve a drink 'on the rocks,' this ice is your best bet."

But what if you have something that you're not that keen to have watered down — like an anejo tequila, or a nice bourbon? In those cases, you'll want to reach for an ice shape that's larger and therefore melts more slowly, like ice spheres or large cubes. "Two inch by two inch cubes…are used for neat spirits of spirit-forward cocktails where you want very little dilution," Stryjewski says. "Cocktails like the Old Fashioned or Negroni can really benefit from a big cube."

On the other hand, if you want your drink slushy, like a mint julep or an almost-frozen-tasting cherry limeade, you want the shape of your ice to be smaller or crushed. Pebble ice — like the kind you get in a Sonic drive-through — is ideal for those situations, but any crushed, shaved, or chipped ice will do. "These will melt more quickly, but as they do so, they keep your drink frosty cold and add some nice texture. You just need some big flavors that won't get lost with the extra dilution," Stryjewski says. Think tiki drinks or non-alcoholic drinks that are big and fruity, so they can stand up to a little extra water.

But also, remember that ice that's sat in the freezer for a long time can pick up the flavors of whatever's around it. "It can start to taste off and ruin a delicious cocktail you've made with expensive and high quality ingredients. Just like the quality of the spirit you choose is important, the quality of your ice is important, too. The importance of fresh ingredients doesn't stop with your ice," says mixologist Barlow Gilmore, spokesperson for Peroni beer. "A quarter of your cocktail's volume is made up of melted ice, so be sure to use the freshest you can find."

As for what ice tools the pros use, Gilmore prefers to buy his ice from local companies, or use his Opal Nugget machine for pebble ice. Stryjewski makes her ice at home. "I love silicone molds because it's so easy to remove the ice. Tovolo is a great brand that's easy to find and makes trays and molds in a variety of sizes and shapes, including things like roses, skulls, and golf balls!," she says. "For perfectly clear cubes and spheres, I have a chest from Wintersmiths that works really well. To make crushed ice, I use a Lewis Bag and mallet."

The shape of your ice matters, but what if you're caught without the preferred shape of ice for your drink? Usually that means you have ice that's too small for your preferred texture. "If you only have small ice on hand, shaking or stirring your drink more briefly than you usually would should help keep it from getting too watery," Stryjewski says. And if you're caught without ice at all? Chill the glassware, and that will go a long way towards keeping your drink cold.

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