When it comes to serving a satisfying beverage, ice serves a twofold purpose; it makes drinks colder and adds water. The quality of ice can make or break that beverage's flavor. If your cocktails have been lacking lately, cloudy ice from your home freezer might be the culprit. Good ice preserves a drink's integrity. It's dense, holds its chill, and doesn't contribute any odd flavors or smells. Make clear ice from tap water at home and, with a few tricks, you'll be spinning up your most impressive cocktails yet.
The most visible benefit of serving your drinks on clear ice is that they appear more appetizing. Your first taste is always with the eyes, and translucent cubes enable more light to pass through the glass, illuminating the beverage. Clear ice also lasts longer because it is pure water. Trapped air bubbles inside of freezing water are what give cloudy cubes their white coloring. The extra oxygen prompts them to reach room temperature more quickly, causing the ice to melt more rapidly and water down your cocktail before you're done.
When pure water freezes without any dissolved gases, clear, dense ice is the result. Clear ice tastes better without the extra air bubbles and impurities, regardless of what type of water you use. That's because the air traps flavors wafting throughout your freezer. When the cubes start to melt, these flavors mix into your drink and alter its taste. Carbonated mixers speed up the process, but a dense block of ice or cubes will maintain its integrity.
Start with a small cooler and fill it 3/4 of the way with water. Detach or prop the lid open and freeze until the water is mostly frozen from the top down. Don't let it freeze completely, checking on the cooler after 12 hours, or the ice could swell and crack the cooler. Invert over a sink or board until the block falls out. The ice toward the bottom will be cloudy. Carefully remove the excess with a bread knife or ice pick, and you'll have a block of clear ice from which to carve individual cubes.
Large ice cubes melt and dilute beverages more slowly, making them perfect for chilling spirits. Make your own by first allowing your block of ice to temper, or warm until the exterior surface defrosts. Score a 1/4-inch deep line in the ice with a sharp edge, then use a hammer and chisel or a mallet on the back of a blade to make a clean cut. Use a metal surface to smooth the sides of each cube, or leave them rough for a multi-faceted look.
If a block of ice is too much, this clever internet hack yields clear ice cubes in less time. Punch 1/4-inch holes at the bottom of a silicone ice cube tray with 1 or 2-inch squares. Place the form on a riser inside of a cooler and fill it with water just until it's submerged. Like the ice block, this directional freezing method freezes from the top-down, forcing excess air and impurities to the bottom of the cooler. Remove the cooler from the freezer when the water in the form is frozen.
Before freezers, year-round ice was a luxury affordable only to the rich and powerful. Clear ice makers are the newest indulgence, but they're much more accessible these days. The priciest machines range upwards of $150. The cubes from an automatic ice maker are usually smaller and will melt more quickly than larger ones, but the clear ice they make is more attractive than cloudy cubes. Invest in a countertop machine if you don't have the time to make your own clear ice, or if carving large blocks is a safety concern.
Some mass-produced goods make clear ice using the same directional freezing process as the cooler-in-the-freezer method. They mostly consist of a silicone ice tray assembly that sits within an insulated container. Available online or at specialty stores, these sets make from 1 to 4 cubes or spheres at a time. Invest in a specialty silicone ice tray if you only enjoy one drink at a time, or if your guest list is very exclusive.
The surest way to make clear ice at home is to use the trusted directional freezing method. This process mimics the way that nature freezes the surface of a lake in the wintertime. The sides and bottom of the body of water are insulated, encased in the earth, which keeps the fluid beneath the surface slightly warmer and still liquid. Air bubbles and impurities sink to the bottom, leaving a layer of dense, pure frozen water on top. Traditional ice trays freeze each cube from all directions, but directional freezing insulates the body of water to form clear ice on the top of your tray.
Many at-home bartenders claim to have made the perfect cube, but not every method is foolproof across the board. Using purified or distilled water in regular ice trays won't work, nor will double boiling water before freezing. Using better water or boiling may yield better-tasting ice cubes, but these methods don't get rid of air bubbles. Your results will depend on freezing processes, water quality, and your specific freezer. It's best to play with temperature and time to find your perfect recipe.
Now that you know the secret to clear ice, mix up your favorite cocktails and put your designer ice cubes to the test. Two or three-inch cubes are ideal for stirred cocktails, while rectangular spears are better for tall glasses. Leave chunks of ice with faceted edges for drinks served in highball glasses. If you're carving a large block, cut mini-icebergs for a stylish touch in winter-themed beverages. Keep the smaller shavings and chunks for shaken cocktails, and store any leftover cubes in an airtight container in the freezer.