"What is the importance of ice in a cocktail?” I typed this question on ChatGPT. The AI chatbot responded with four broad pointers: It absorbs heat from the drink and “controls temperature”; it dilutes the cocktail, making the flavours mellow and balanced; it “adds texture”, depending on whether the drink is served as a slushy or on the rocks; and it is needed for “presentation” to make the drink “appealing”.
While the succinct answer was almost accurate, it missed a few things. Most bartenders say ice acts like fire. Here’s a quick test: If you sip on 30ml gin neat at room temperature, the alcohol hits hard and it will numb your palate for a few seconds. Next, add an ice cube, and voilà, you can taste the botanicals. Ice unlocks flavours, and, as it melts, one can go from tasting florals to citrus and spicy notes.
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For the sake of simplicity, experiment with just one flavour: spicy, for example. If spices are mixed in a drink, it will taste most potent when served warm and soft and mellow when it’s cold. It’s the same for bitters, an essential cocktail ingredient. The bitterness is pleasant when served cold but unbearable at room temperature. Skilled bartenders, then, can play around with flavours because they have mastered the knowledge of temperature points.
“Do you know a bartender can bring down the temperature of a drink from 10 degrees Celsius to minus 10 degrees Celsius just by shaking it?” asks Annu Jha. They don’t use a thermometer, they simply know through practice and instinct. The Delhi-based bartender started the brand Just Ice in 2021 to produce and supply high-quality, crystal-clear ice to bars. Now, his ice travels in trains to cities like Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad. He breaks down the technicalities of temperature: A cocktail, for instance, is best served at temperatures ranging from approximately minus 2-5 degrees Celsius. “Ice comprises almost 70% of a cocktail and good bartenders pay attention to this integral component,” notes Jha.
When diners don’t want too much ice in a cocktail, bartenders have a ready solution: Change the glassware. In such a situation, Rahul Raghav, beverage director of Tamras Gin in Goa, serves a tall drink (let’s say whisky high-ball) in a short glass. In most cases, diners complain of a sore throat after ordering such drinks. Sore throat, Raghav notes, is also caused by poor-quality ice and good bars pay extra attention to up their ice game.
“Good ice” has a few physical attributes. It should be crystal clear, an indication of purity, and dense to avoid rapid melting. A single, large spherical ice cube or ice sphere is used in whiskies, Old Fashioned and Negronis. For, spheres have a lower surface area than cubes and melt more slowly. Ice cubes are perfect for high-ball style cocktail. “Good-quality purified water yields good ice. The surface has to be smooth and it (ice) has to be stored hygienically,” explains Santosh Kukreti, head mixologist at Slink & Bardot in Mumbai.
The upscale bar has an “ice programme” (a systematic process to make ice) and is known for some of the best drinks in the city. It has an ice machine from a Japanese manufacturer and sources ice from local suppliers too. One such brand, or supplier, is Mumbai-based Premium Ice. “A good bar invests in ingredients, including good-quality ice. One block of clear ice takes time and that’s why there are entrepreneurs who make it now,” explains Jha. ChatGPT didn’t tell me this.