Ice, Ice, Baby

Probably the easiest punny title in the world. Also totally creating a separation between readers born before 1995 and the rest…

So for this August technical article in the summer fundamentals series, I wanted to address the most important ingredient of cocktails: Ice. They go in the shaker as ice cubes, in the glass as cubes or crushed ice.¬† They’re everywhere, top to bottom.

First things first : Why ? Why do we put ice cubes in the drinks ? Not a trick question, we just want to chill them. Ok. So what’s so technical about it ? The thing is we want to get the drink chilled, with the least possible dilution. Meaning reducing the way the ice cubes turn into water at the contact of the drink.

When putting ice in a drink, there’s a heat exchange between the drink and the ice cubes, the room temperature liquid, will warm the cubes, and the cubes will refresh the drink. It’s a simple exchange between the two. And that happen whether you use a ton of ice or just one ice cube. What’s going to change ? The speed at which it happens, and how long the temperature is maintain. Low case scenario : Just one ice cube. It will give everything it has to chill your drink. It might not be enough, but here’s what happen :

  • Ice cube is floating on top of the drink. The liquid near it gets colder, because the ice cub is absorbing the heat.
  • The now cold liquid got a higher density than the hotter part of the drink, not yet cooled liquid, so it sinks at the bottom of the drink, meaning the rest of the drink is getting chilled, and sinking to the bottom.
  • The not so cool anymore liquid isn’t as dense as the newly refreshed liquid so goes up again. etc.

So that’s the theory behind “A liquid gets chilled in a glass”.


Cause there’s a but. The result of all that, is dilution. Meaning a part of the ice is joining the liquid club as it’s warming up.

The model I described earlier is a case where you have very small ice in a very big drink, ending up with a never really chill drink, maybe just on the surface, near the ice cube.

So of course, you add more ice. And now, we have a glass full of ice, and some liquid. The exact same thing happen. The room temperature liquid’s heat get absorbed by the ice cube, the ice cube melt a bit, and the liquid gets colder. Up to a point. This “Up to point temperature” is a plateau. You cannot cryo-freeze your drink by just putting ice cube in it. Good thing though. Imagine just getting a big ice cube of a cocktail every time you ice it ? Not practical.

So when all of the liquid is at the same temperature, its heat isnt absorbed by the ice anymore, and the ice stops diluting it, cause it stop melting basically. That’s of course a theory only case. Because then, the surrounding environment gets it turn at heating the drink, given that you’re drinking your cocktail in a lounge bar, listening to some smooth jazz, looking at this lady in red or gentleman in a tailored suit, and you start having thoughts hotter than your cocktail. That you’re holding in your hand. Stop. You’re re-heating the drink. And make the ice cubes work again.

So end of first part. You now get what happens in a drink poured over ice cubes.

But you’re a bartender, stop my cocktail from getting hot !!!

We actually did all the work before serving it. When making a cocktail, the glass is chilled. Meaning filled up with ice and water, the water acting as a heat transporter to get the all glass chilled, while we go make the cocktail in a mixing glass or a shaker. So if you see me filling a glass with ice cubes and water and putting it on the counter when you order a martini, don’t give me that suspicious-surprised look. The real drink comes after.

Then, we get to the mixing glass / shaker part. You put a good scoop of ice in these, then the drink ingredients, and shake or mix. By doing that, you expose the liquid to more of the ice than if it was just lying around it, and it gets chilled (and other stuff. But we’ll see that in the next fundamentals article).

You now have a chilled drink in a shaker. So you get the water/ice out of the glass you prepared, Put some clean ice cubes in it if needed, and pour the drink over it.

All those steps will have the effect of hitting the plateau temperature as soon as we serve the drink, and keep the ice work to a minimum.

Cold, refreshing drink is a fundamental. So now you get the basics of how chilling a drink works. Few other things :

  • I talked of maximising liquid exposition to the ice by putting water in a drink to chill it up faster. That’s why big round ice balls are popular, they have a better exposition ratio and chill it faster
  • Following that, you want to avoid small ice cubes or crushed ice to get the chilling done. I saw a lot of bartenders doing it. It’s just less efficient. Crushed ice is a finishing touch, not a starting point.

One last thing : dilution. You’re going to / will have to get some.

As already said, dilution is what happen when an ice cube absorbs the heat from its surroundings. It melts. This heat absorption will be the same no matter what. If you’re using a scoop of ice cubes in a mixing glass, in a shaker, in a cup, it’s gonna have the exact same dilution, given that you get the drink to the same temperature. I hear/read a lot of bartenders saying that shaking a drink will make it less diluted than mixing it in a glass : Not true. Same drink, same temperature, same dilution. One thing shaking is, is that it’s more efficient than stirring. Again, there are other side effects, but that will be for the next article.

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