You wouldn’t know it from the parlous state of many people’s freezers, but there was a time when ice was considered a great luxury. In Japan, it was a gift offered to emperors; during the reign of Charles II, iced drinks were the preserve of an elite who had it brought down from the Alps by donkey.
These days most people don’t give it a second thought. They chuck a couple of melty little cubes in their G&T and consider the job done. Yet, as any bartender will tell you, the quality of your ice can have a dramatic impact on your drink. A cocktail made with large, ultra-cold cubes will be crisper and fresher for longer – and will look a lot nicer too.
If you want the really crystalline stuff, you will need to order it in from a specialist producer: Ice Studio, supplier to many of London’s top bars, now does home deliveries of exquisite ice in all shapes and sizes. If you want a proper, five-star cocktail, this is the way to go.
But a better ice machine will also make a big difference. If you’ve ever spent a hot afternoon holding a glass underneath one of those pathetic little counter-top ice machines that plops out a little pebble every 20 minutes, you will know that most ice machines aren’t up to the job. There are a few, however, that have been designed with the serious cocktail-lover in mind. One brand that top bars use is the Japanese brand Hoshizaki – its ice machines make cubes with a clarity, hardness and size that’s rarely matched.
For a domestic setting, however, Merlin Wright of bespoke kitchen specialists Plain English recommends the ice machines by U-Line and Sub Zero. “They’re really popular with clients who entertain a lot,” he tells me (and by the look of it, we’re all going to have to get a lot better at entertaining if we want to see anyone in the coming months). “If you don’t like the stainless-steel look, they can always be built into a run of cabinets.”
A mean ice machine should be accessorised with a beautiful ice bucket, adds Alex Beaugeard of design firm Lanserring: “Filling a scoop with dry, cold ice from an ice bucket and throwing it into a tumbler feels classical, congratulatory and a little theatrical.”
If space does not allow for a full-scale ice machine, then at least replace your ice trays with something more capacious. Tovolo does a good range of silicone moulds for making generously sized cubes, spheres and blocks. I often fill up a big container with water, freeze it, then hack it into shards. A G&T served over a mound of rugged icebergs looks, I think, even more beautiful than uniform cubes.
Using purified, rather than tap, water may improve the flavour of your ice cubes, but it won’t affect the appearance. The haziness you see is little air bubbles trapped inside. The only way to banish these, and achieve a crystal-clear ice block, is by way of “directional freezing”, a rather involved process that is best left to the pros (YouTube is full of ice nerds keen to show you how).
If you need crushed ice for your caipirinha, simply wrap some ice in a clean cloth and smash it with a mallet. For slushie-style frozen cocktails, like frosés and margaritas, the Vitamix A3500i blender is the bomb. It attacks ice and frozen fruit with an aggression that can actually be quite frightening.
Another good way to add a frisson to cocktail hour is to invest in sexy ice tools. Starshaker.com has a stunning array of razor-sharp ice picks, ice saws and knives, all handmade by Japanese artisans. Even if you don’t quite know what to do with a £335 ice saw, it’s always nice to know there’s one in your armoury. Alternatively, you could commission something unique from trained jeweller and blacksmith Alex Pole. His projects have included a jet-black forged ice spike, some showstopping ice tongs and a set of heavyweight, stainless-steel whisky “stones” that chill (but don’t dilute) your drink.
Until recently, one of the best destinations for ice in the world was The Aviary bar in Chicago, a Michelin-style cocktail lounge that offers more than 35 different types. One of the bar’s signature cocktails is an Old Fashioned served in an ice sphere that the guest then smashed with a miniature slingshot. The bar may be closed for lockdown, but fans can recreate that drink using The Aviary Slingshot kit designed by gastro-design studio Crucial Detail. Only serious ice geeks need apply – the whole process is beyond laborious. But the result, I must say, is rather exquisite. Exactly as good ice should be.