Infusing Ice Cubes Can Level Up Your Cocktails
February 16, 2023 –––––– Laura Pelner
Good bartenders give careful consideration to everything in their cocktail arsenals, from the spirits and mixers to the glassware and garnishes. In restaurants and bars, presentation is important. That’s why many mixologists are creating specialty ice cubes for whisky drinks—infusing them with bitters and garnishes to grab attention. While these elevated ice cubes require some prep work, they make a great addition to drinks.
“A tried-and-true cocktail recipe can be given a fresh take just by adding an infused ice cube,” says Hannah Crittenden, bar manager at Bouchon in Asheville, North Carolina. “The visual is a great benefit to the cocktail as a conversation starter, and if the consumer imbibes slowly and allows the cube to melt a bit, it can infuse the drink. It piques interest and helps the cocktail stand up.”
Bouchon makes specialty ice for its Ginger New Fashioned ($13), a cocktail mixed with Jim Beam bourbon, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, and ginger beer, enhanced with a large square ice cube that is infused with Angostura bitters and an orange wheel. Bouchon also offers a rosemary and lemon-infused ice cube for its updated take on the Gin Fizz. The specialty cubes aren’t that hard to make, Crittenden says, adding that the reward is worth the effort.
Nikki Guard, beverage director for Denver-based Tag Restaurant Group, freezes flowers into ice. The company’s Guard and Grace steakhouse—with locations in Denver and Houston—includes an orchid-enhanced ice sphere in its Orange You Glad It’s Bourbon ($13), made with Laws Whiskey House Four Grain bourbon and orange blossom-enhanced jasmine tea. “It helps elevate the drink and makes our guests feel more special,” Guard says of the signature ice sphere. “Bartenders choose ice for their drinks with specific intent, based on appearance and how quickly it will dilute a cocktail.”
In Los Angeles, the Southern California rooftop venue ALK opened last September atop the new Godfrey Hotel Hollywood, offering a limited-edition updated Manhattan featuring a specialty cube. The Manhattan Beach ($16), made with Knob Creek bourbon, La Pivón Rojo vermouth, and Angostura bitters, was enhanced with a specialty cube of coconut water. While it’s a simple addition to standard ice, the coconut water added a unique flavor to a well-known drink.
“This drink evolves beautifully as it’s sipped,” says Matthew Nathanson, director of restaurants for The Godfrey Hotel Hollywood. “As the ice melts, the alcohol creeps back and you can taste the flavor of the spirits more clearly. Manhattan purists don’t like that the original formula was altered, but adventurous palates appreciate the spin.”
You can enjoy similar success. Infusing ice at home isn’t difficult, and the possibilities are limited only by your creativity. Start simple by using coconut water or dive right in by freezing flowers, fruit, and mixers into your ice, using the following pro bartender tips.
Hot Then Cold
Use hot, filtered water. Heating up filtered water will create a clearer cube. Heat the water first, and then pour into the mold and let it cool there before moving it to the freezer.
The Right Tray
Choose a high-quality ice mold. Make sure it’s big enough to hold whatever you want to put into the cube, but also that it fits into the glass you plan to serve the drink in. Nikki Guard uses True Cubes, an ice mold tray that has a separate lower chamber. When the water in the tray settles, the air and impurities are forced to the bottom chamber and can be easily removed once frozen, resulting in a perfectly clear cube. “This is so easy and hands off,” Guard says.
Choose your additives carefully. While the possibilities are endless, bar manager Hannah Crittenden suggests starting with citrus. She recommends putting the items—a lemon wheel or orange slice, for instance—into the mold first, and making sure it’s wedged in well before adding hot water. Let the items sit in the hot water; as it cools the water picks up the flavor and enhances the finished product. She adds bitters during this step.
If you’re putting fruit or herbs into the ice, make sure the pieces are big enough to fit into your ice mold so they don’t rise to the top of the cube before it freezes. “Work with something large enough to be wedged fully into the ice mold so that it’s not sticking out and causing lumpy ice,” Crittenden says. For her bitters and orange-enhanced cube, she puts a large orange slice in the mold with a few drops of bitters and then adds the hot water and lets it infuse before moving it to the freezer.
Be a Careful Builder
Don’t put too much flavoring into your ice or it will overpower the drink as it dilutes. Also, make the cocktail first and pour it into the glass before adding the ice. Plan for the drink to be sipped over time. “It’s all about timing the dilution, so don’t add the ice until you’re ready to serve the drink,” says Nathanson.