As the craft cocktail movement gains fans and aficionados, it’s natural that more and more home bartenders enhance their repertoire with sophisticated drinks that taste (and look) like they just came from the local speakeasy. One of the best ways to do this is with something as simple as ice.
If you’ve been to any modern cocktail den lately, you’ll likely notice many drinks with large blocks or spheres of ice instead of the traditional cubes or crushed ice. While the science is a bit more complicated (check out the links below for further reading), the general concept is that by using one large piece of ice, the result is an overall smaller ratio of surface area to volume that ensures less dilution of the drink. And the sphere’s shape gives it the geometric minimum ratio. It doesn’t hurt that they look pretty darn cool too.
The ice sphere was actually popularized in Japan, and you’ll sometimes see them called Japanese ice balls. They’re traditionally carved from a large block of ice [see video], a skill that’s probably out of the question for all but the most meticulous mixologists. Luckily, there are many affordable products entering the marketplace that make it a bit easier for laymen and professionals alike.
I had been experimenting with making my own large ice cubes and spheres when I got my hands on two new products that make life much easier behind the bar. What follows is a review, along with a recipe for my first attempt at a modern craft cocktail. Full disclosure: One of the molds was a gift, while the other was a free review product.
Method 1: DIY. Using a sealable plastic container with a rounded bottom, I was able to produce a makeshift hunk of ice that was neither a perfect sphere or square. If I were an ice sculptor, I’m sure I would have been able to fashion it into something cool, but those skills are minimal. I ended up melting it under water to form sort of a sphere. (It’s the drink to the left in the photo above.)
Method 2: Sphere Ice Molds For Classic Cocktails, from Tovolo. Package of two plastic molds that create 2.5-inch spheres. Note: Tovolo also offers molds that make 2.25-inch cubes. Available on Amazon.com and at retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond.
Of course, to really put these molds to the test, I had to come up with the perfect cocktail. Inspired by the Skinny Dip at Sweetwater Bar & Grill, I created a crafty rum and ginger concoction that works well with the ice spheres. [Recipe below]
For the purpose of this review, I’ll discount the DIY method as being inferior and instead compare the two products. If you have an ice sculptor in the family, feel free to give that a whirl. Otherwise, I’d stick to one of the easy-to-use commercial molds. Both molds come in two pieces. The Tovolo mold is a hard plastic base with a silicone cap, while the Arctic Chill molds are perfect spheres made of silicone, split into two equal pieces.
Filling and freezing: The Tovolo mold has a fill line and is a bit easier to prep for the freezer. I ended up placing a small funnel in the small fill hole of the Arctic Chill molds. With both molds, remember that water expands when frozen, so don’t over-fill if you want your sphere to look picture perfect. I’d give the edge to Tovolo here. (Note that both molds will take a while to fully freeze, up to six hours.)
Removal and appearance: I used room temperature purified water from a gallon plastic jug for this test. While not terribly cloudy, I did not get a super clear sphere that you’d find in a commercial bar. There are many tips and tricks online on how to achieve this (see links below), and I’ll probably experiment more in the future. While the Tovolo sphere popped right out of the mold, the Arctic Chill sphere needed a little help, but it was not a major issue. You could warm it with your hands or let it thaw for a minute. Of more concern is the ridge around the middle of the sphere that looks like a mini version of the ring around Saturn (at right in this photo). There can also be a bit of overflow out of the fill hole, causing a small nob to form on top. I tried a second sphere, purposely under-filling it, and had better results. There was no ring, but there was an indent at the fill hole. The trick is adding just the right amount of water. I’d give the nod here to Tovolo, but if you’re not concerned about a perfect sphere every time, it’s not as big an issue.
Packaging and value: Both products are priced similarly per mold, but Arctic Chill gives you four in a box, while Tovolo gives you just two. Tovolo’s box includes detailed instructions, but Arctic Chill’s molds are easy enough that you don’t need directions. Assuming you’ll want to make more than two at a time, I’d give the edge here to Arctic Chill, especially if you can find it on sale.
Both molds have their pros and cons, but both are recommendable if you’re looking to keep up with the latest cocktail trends and give your drinks a modern look. I put them both to the test in a new cocktail in an effort to break away from my usual tropical drink routine, though I had to stick with my trusty rum.
(By The Atomic Grog)
Sweet, spicy, elegant and classy, the perfect deserted island cocktail (if you happen to be stranded with a 1950s B-movie star).
Like most craft cocktails, this contains some very specific and esoteric ingredients. Suggested substitutions listed below.
* 1 1/2 ounces Dancing Pines Cask Barrel Aged Rum
* 1 ounce house-made cinnamon/orange syrup
* 2 dashes Bitter Truth Orange Bitters
* 2 dashes Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters
* 1 ounce spicy ginger beer
* Fresh ginger root
* Orange peel and cinnamon stick (for garnish)
* Cubed and crushed ice, plus a sphere for the glass
Cutting board and knife (for the ginger), two shakers, muddler, fine-mesh strainer.
Making the drink
In first shaker:
* Muddle 4-5 slices of fresh ginger
* Add rum, syrup and bitters
* Shake vigorously 8-10 seconds with cubed ice
In second shaker:
* Strain contents of first shaker through fine-mesh strainer
* Add ginger beer and shake gently 4-5 seconds with crushed ice
Into a small rocks glass:
* Add one large ice sphere or cube
* Strain contents of second shaker
* Garnish with a flamed orange peel and cinnamon stick
Drink notes and tips
* Am I poking fun at the anal retentive nature of craft cocktails with these elaborate techniques? Perhaps. But the end result is quite tasty. Feel free to cut corners where you wish, but you lose points in the style category. My thoughts on this are actually quite logical: The initial muddling and shaking releases all the natural ginger flavor and blends it with the core ingredients. The fine-mesh strain removes all the bits of raw ginger, while the second shake gently adds the ginger beer, chilling and diluting the drink further. It’s strained again to remove the ice, and garnished with the proper accoutrements. Beyond the showmanship, of course, flaming the orange peel (see photo below) also releases the oil (and flavor) from the skin into the drink.
* A craft rum from a small distillery isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s certainly in the spirit of this drink. My rum of choice here is Dancing Pines Cask Barrel Aged Rum, which Sean Iglehart turned me onto in his Skinny Dip at Sweetwater Bar & Grill. Feel free to use another aged gold rum from a small distillery. Another favorite is The Real McCoy. Bump the rum up to 2 ounces if you like your drink a little stronger.
* My orange/cinnamon syrup recipe is a closely-guarded secret, but suffice it to say that you’ll be fine if you use equal parts of cinnamon syrup and fresh-squeezed OJ.
* It wouldn’t be a craft cocktail without several types of obscure bitters. However, any decent orange bitters will work fine. And if you don’t have Dale DeGroff’s new product on hand, you could substitute one dash of pimento dram, which tends to be richer and sweeter than the bitters.
* Use your favorite brand of spicy ginger beer. I’ve also tried a craft ginger ale such as Blenheim’s (see photo above), but I prefer this drink with the beer’s more “gingery” flavor and less carbonation.
Enjoy your craft, and cheers!
Ice and cocktails
* Cocktail science: 5 myths about ice, debunked (Serious Eats)
* Perfectly clear ice balls – A clever trick (Alcademics)
* Beating the heat with some of summer’s coolest ice trays (Imbibe magazine)
* In the art of cocktails, ice is the secret ingredient (The Oregonian)