A Quick Guide On Types of Ice Used in The Bar and What Variations You Should Have Available To Compliment Your Bar Program.
At the start of my first-day training as a bartender, my trainer, Trefor Davies, said something that’s stuck with me for years.
“We are masters of dilution.”
Typically, you don’t want to hear the word dilution when talking about alcohol because it implies a weak drink, but giving it thought, he was right.
His statement emphasized that while we can blend all kinds of spirits and mixers to create a new drink, the challenge lies in controlling how much water is put in the drink to reach a delicious harmony.
What sets mediocre drinks apart from those made by professionals is a bartender’s ability to create perfectly balanced drinks every time, and ice is the most powerful and influential ingredient to get that job done.
In this guide, we will break down the different shapes, sizes, and uses of bar ice so you can elevate your cocktail menu with this one simple ingredient.
Different Types of Bar Ice
There isn’t a one size fits all scenario with ice and cocktails. It comes in many variations depending on what you’re using it for and the desired result once served.
Let’s break down the kinds of ice bartenders use, starting from smallest to largest.
You’ve seen crushed/pebble ice in your favorite tiki drinks, juleps, shrubs, and swizzles.
The idea with crushed ice is you want it to dilute and cool drinks quickly. The cocktail is designed to drink in less time than, say, a bourbon on ice, which comes with a giant, dense cube.
You never want to shake cocktails with crushed ice because the drink will turn into a watery mess before you pour it into a glass, where you’ll add more ice.
You can purchase crushed ice machines, but they ain’t cheap. Having said that, if you own a tiki bar or serve a lot of crushed ice cocktails, keeping up with volume might be worth the investment instead of hand-crushing several wells worth of ice. The money saved in labor alone would be worth the investment.
Most bartenders don’t use cracked ice.
It’s time-consuming to make, and if you’re using it to mix a cocktail, just stir it for an extra ten seconds with standard cubes, and you’ll get the same result of dilution and temperature.
To make cracked ice, hold a few standard cubes or one large cube in your hand, and using the back of a bar spoon, smack the cubes a couple of times—voila, cracked ice.
Standard Cubed Ice
These are also called regular cubes, and the dimensions can vary, but typically they are roughly 1”x1” cubes and are the most common type of ice used in bars.
The reason it’s common is it’s what you’ll find in your glass when you order water, soft drinks, and drinks “on the rocks.”
It’s also what bartenders use when shaking most of their cocktails.
It’s big and dense enough that when shaken, it won’t melt too much, but it’s small enough to cool the booze inside quickly.
For example, in tiki cocktails, standard ice cubes are used during mixing. Post-shaking, the bartender strains the concoction into a tiki mug and crowns it with crushed ice.
This is an excellent example of why bartenders need multiple kinds of ice to build a perfectly balanced cocktail.
I’ve never seen these in person, only on IG and TikTok, but if you’re looking to add a “wow” factor to some of your drinks, this would be an interesting way to do it.
As the name implies, Collins Spears are made to be served in Collins glasses, with dimensions of 1”x1”x5”. They can keep drinks cold without diluting them too much.
Collins spears also act as a garnish—seeing a tall glass with a giant ice cube running the length of the glass looks cool and makes guests feel like they have a more elevated cocktail experience.
You’ll need a large block of ice, a serrated knife, and a mallet to make a Collins spear. Each spear will come out a little different from its brethren, but that’s part of the appeal of house-cut ice.
So make your own ice block, purchase affordable silicone ice molds, or watch this step-by-step video where they use a small cooler to make clear ice.
Most often used in whiskey on the rocks, the large cube is 2”x2” and is seen in spirit-forward drinks.
Only one cube is used at a time, and because it has less surface area, the cube will melt much more slowly than standard cubes, so the drink doesn’t get diluted as quickly.
Some bars will use large cubes in shaker tins to cool down drinks with minimal dilution, but because each cube can cost more than a dollar, this can get expensive very swiftly.
If you’re interested in making the cubes in-house, I’d suggest watching this video featuring a Clinebell ice machine, or you can check out these easy-to-use ice trays.
Ice spheres are 2” in diameter and roughly serve the same purpose as the large cube. Being a sphere means it has less surface area, so in theory, it should have less dilution than a large cube.
There’s been debate about this, so Jeffrey Morgenthaler, award-winning bartender, and author, experimented with standard cubes, large cubes, and ice spheres to settle the matter once and for all.
He found that the large cube and ice sphere had the same amount of dilution after 20 minutes of sitting at room temperature.
The story’s moral is that ice spheres are more of a garnish than a tool that affects the drink in any way that’s different from large cubes.
Ice spheres are a pain in the ass to make, but they really do look amazing when sitting in a glass of whiskey.
A Quick Word on Clear Ice
Some bars go to great lengths to get clear ice for their bar program because some people believe cloudy ice contains impurities that affect the flavor of cocktails.
The technique for creating clear ice is called directional freezing, and it requires a lot of work and freezer space to pull it off for a bar.
Morganthaler also tested cloudy ice vs. clear ice in the same dilution experiment and found no discernible difference between the two drinks other than how they looked.
The conclusion is cloudy ice doesn’t affect the flavor, but if your bar emphasizes aesthetics, then clear ice is worth the effort or expense to have in your program.
Upping the ice game in your bar or restaurant can dramatically impact your cocktail menu, and investing in ice molds, ice bags, or other tools is relatively inexpensive.
So, why not start experimenting with your drinks and see if you can taste the difference?