Ice: How Much Does Shape and Clarity Really Matter?

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This experiment was inspired by a guest we had at the bar a few years ago, it was one of those experiences that sticks with you. We had a relatively new bartender – new to us, and new to bartending that we were so happy to have. I was working with her one night when I overheard this guy just harassing her about the ice cubes she used in his whiskey.

At Clyde Common we have always had a pretty awesome whiskey list. The upside of that is there’s lots of delicious whiskey for everyone to enjoy. The downside is that it sometimes draws in these dreadful Whiskey Alpha guys who love being horrible to bartenders. They especially enjoy preying on A) young bartenders, and B) female bartenders.

We’ve never been one of those places with an aggressive “ice program”. We have the Tovolo 1.25″ molds that we refill from the tap and freeze overnight for serving whiskey on the rocks and Old Fashioneds. It’s my favorite cube to enjoy a drink on, so that’s what we use. But this guy was nearly incensed that she had the audacity to serve him a drink on what this “expert” deemed to be inferior ice, even going to far as to quote her a bunch of “facts” about impurities and ice shapes, melting times, etc. He made her feel really awful and nothing makes me as angry as when people pick on my bartenders.

The average armchair mixologist will happily inform you that drinks served on large-format ice, clear ice, or spherical ice will stay colder and remain less diluted than drinks served on, well, normal ice.

The Bar Book and Drinking Distilled are both full of drinking myths that I loved disproving. I think my favorite was the lemon juice myth found on pages 24-25 of The Bar Book, where I set up an experiment to disprove this idea that room temperature citrus that had been rolled on the countertop just before juicing somehow magically contained more juice.

The ice thing has always bothered me, but I never really had the time to devote to this blog post. Because it’s the sort of thing we hear all the time, right? Well, why don’t we just set up a really simple experiment and see if it’s actually true?

This one is super easy. I took four shots of whiskey, all the same volume, and all the same temperature, and put them on the rocks. The volume of whiskey across all glasses was 2 oz/60 ml, and the temperature of each glass of whiskey was room temperature to start. I also made certain that all of my ice was roughly the same temperature (within ±4ºC of each other), a feat I was able to achieve by storing them all in the same freezer. You can see me measuring the temperature of my ice with my laser-guided infrared thermometer.

Then, one by one, I poured the 60ml of whiskey over the ice and let it sit out at room temperature for twenty minutes. I felt like 20 minutes was a good amount of time, about the amount of time it takes the average person to drink a glass of whiskey. At the end of the 20 minutes I dumped the now watered-down whiskey back into the graduated cylinder (without the ice) to measure how much water had been imparted by the ice melting.

Glass A contained (3) 1.25″ Tovolo ice mold cubes (again, my favorite cubes), two of those cubes were on the bottom of the glass, and one was kinda sitting on those two. You can see in the photo below.

Glass B contained (1) cloudy “BFC” (you can guess what that stands for), which was made in the Tovolo King Cube mold. It’s 2″ cubed. This is a big cube that you’ll find at a lot of cocktail bars, and I really like this one as well.

Glasses C and D contained ice that I made with this contraption I found on the internet. I’m not going to name them or link to them, because I don’t want to disrespect anyone’s company. But basically this is a huge, idiotic contraption that takes up half your freezer in order to produce clear ice via directional freezing. It comes with molds to make both clear cubes and clear spheres. It takes roughly two days to complete, and it costs nearly $200 dollars. You can make exactly four ice cubes every two days. Needless to say, I hate it.

Anyway, here are the results of the ice experiment in graphic form:

Okay, so there’s kind of our baseline. Two ounces of whiskey in, nearly three ounces of whiskey+water out. Now let’s see how this other, “fancier” ice performs:

The big cube resulted in about half a teaspoon less water. Is it less? Yes. Is it much less? No.

So, a 1ml difference between clear ice and cloudy ice, huh? That might even have to do with the fact that the clear cube was simply colder than the cloudy cube. And why would it be colder? Because freezers operate on cycles, and it happened to be running when I pulled the clear one out (please stop believing that cloudy ice is full of impurities, it’s just a little air)

This was supposed to be the best one, right? Less surface area supposedly means less water in your drink, right? Identical results as the clear cube, and very similar results as the three cubes.

The results were not that surprising to me. Yes, there was a slight difference between the large-format clear ice and the 1.25″ cubes. A difference of 4ml of water, which is less than a teaspoon. In fact, I would go so far as to call 4ml of water in 60ml of whiskey…. negligible. What is far more likely probably makes the most difference in your ice, more so than the size or shape, is the temperature of your freezer.

Conclusion? Big ice and clear ice are super cool (no pun intended). They look cool, they kinda feel cool, and clear ice is super pretty. But being a dick about it, or insisting on pseudoscience is not cool. So the next time someone wants to feed you a bunch of nonsense about you using the “wrong” ice, feel free to show them this post. Thanks for reading.

50 Replies to “Ice: How Much Does Shape and Clarity Really Matter?”

  • David says:

    I’ve never really got caught up in the dilution thing with clear ice. I just like the way it looks in the glass. Combined with a quality glass this really adds to the pleasure of my drinking ritual.

    I found a $30 Glacio clear round ice mold and $40 True Tubes clear square ice mold on amazon. Both work well and sent me back way less than$200 all in. They take about 20 hours to do their job and I agree they require an annoying amount of space in the freezer to do it.

    But I have more than blown any “savings” on ice molds on snooty drinking glassware.

    The pretentious and overpriced Czech-made Rauk tumbler is the perfect fit for a Glacio clear ice sphere – with zero nose bumping. You’d almost think the Rauk was designed around it. Rauk has an innovative design, a great heft, and looks great while doing its job: https://norlanglass.com/products/rauk-heavy-tumbler.

    For the square cube I use the even more pretentious and overpriced Italian-made Cibi “Blade Runner” double old fashioned glass. This may be the best drinking vessel ever created by man. It’s a work of art that’s wonderful to hold and a delight to sip from. Harrison Ford sipped Johnnie Walker Black from one in the original Blade Runner movie. https://www.htfw.com/cibi-double-blade-runner-glass-twin-pack-37cl

    And for extra-douchey cocktail snobbiness try putting a cube in the Cibi glass at room temperature and let sit for a couple minutes. Then pop in the freezer while you mix your drink. Not only will this chill the glass nicely but it will freeze the cube to the bottom so it doesn’t float – and is virtually invisible. Between this and the built-in story it has never failed to impress a guest.

    As a disclaimer here I would add that (aside from this post) I have never tortured anyone on the subject of ice or whisky glasses except my wife. She blew a gasket when she saw the credit card bill for the Cibis but forgave the first time she sipped a Vieux Carré from one.

  • I have some minor issues with scienceyness (sp?) of your experimental methods (perhaps a conversation for another day). I have always felt that the person consuming any particular beverage should have the final say as to the “best” temperature, dilution, and flavor of the drink they are consuming, particularly if they are paying to have it prepared. That being said, I have done my best to recreate your experiment and verify your results. After having done so, I can say with great confidence, that the gentleman seated at your bar that night was an absolute dickhead. Industry experts have long believed that people who are rude to bartenders or servers are generally rather douchey individuals. A fact that is now supported by empirical evidence. I’m glad you were able to intervene in the situation before things got out of control. I applaud your dedication to the craft, to the customer experience and though I’ve said it a thousand times I think it bears repeating still; There is no substitute for proper training. I hope the young lady’s opinion of the profession wasn’t too badly tarnished by her experience with that particular guest. She could be in no better hands to learn the trade. The depth and breadth of your knowledge and your skill as an instructor are unparalleled. It is always a pleasure to enjoy a drink at your bar. Clyde Commons is a wonderful restaurant. Keep fighting the good fight. Cheers!

  • Alan says:

    Jeffrey, this is perhaps the greatest article ever written.
    (I’m a home bartender, great cocktails for my wife and guests… no bar experience.)
    I’ve done comparisons with ice molds and freezer “ice maker” ice.,
    The results are so similar, it only comes down to how pretentious the drinker is.

    Round Spheres look cool but they bump into my nose, pass…
    Square Cubes look great and bring things to the next level.,
    Ice Maker Ice is always ready… (do change the filters regularly)

    I break out the molds for special occasions, they do look better..
    Freshly made “ice maker” ice is perfectly fine for me.
    Thanks for debunking this nonsense… keep it up.

    P.S. your Tequila/Sherry EggNog recipe is amazing, thanks.

  • James Kelso says:

    “little douche coupes” might be the phrase you’re looking for?

  • GP says:

    The worst thing about all this (the pretentious whiskey dillweed) is that, as I have (gently and good-naturedly hopefully) outlined to many a (more receptively-inclined sort of) guest- maximizing cold and minimizing dilution is actually not what you want in a good whiskey at all! The colder (temp-wise) and hotter (ABV-wise) it is, the less you are actually going to taste the nuance and depth of the spirit. What the smart drinker wants, IMHO, is a bit of dilution to open it up (the degree is a matter of taste really and depends on the starting ABV and taste profile of the spirit in question), and a bit of cold so it’s cool on the palate and the booziness doesn’t overpower the other elements- in other words, as with all drinks, balance and depth. You sure as shit don’t want that sucker martini temp, or you’re really wasting your money on drinking good brown liquor.
    As far as your experiment, I’d guess that #1 (the 1.25″ ice one) ended up slightly colder than the less dilute ones-because technically, actual, you know, thermodynamics says that it’s a transaction of energy transfer, and so your pretty locked in to a directly proportional relationship between amount of dilution and temperature of the drink once diluted. You ended up with more dilution because more surface area. You physically can’t get more cold with less dilution unless, as you say, you pre-chill the spirit in a fridge/freezer- as you might do with vodka because you dont want to actually taste it as all lol.
    Anyways, thanks for spreading the gospel hopefully the whiskey turds will find out and be better human beings (unlikely but we can hope).

  • Jim Kelso says:

    BACK ATCHA

  • James says:

    thanks for the post! i learned to stop harassing bartenders a long time ago. now i just bring my own 25 lb clear block with me when i go out 😛

  • Bill says:

    I use the Oxo Silicone Stackable Ice Cube tray with lid large cubes (1-3/4 inch cubes) for whiskey and small cubes (7/8 inch) for cocktails. I ended up choosing these over the Tovolo because they have a lid which seals against the silicone keeping out freezer “badness.”

    Ultimately, though: the takeaway should be “Don’t be a dick and treat everyone with respect.”

  • Steve Coomes says:

    Fridge-made ice also seems to impart to cocktails a viscous texture that softens the desirable (sharp) textures you get from fresh citrus. I’ll make cocktails at friends’ houses, where fridge is all they have, and the difference from the Wintersmiths ice I make at home is noticeable. When I go to their houses, I generally am cocktail dude, so I get a quality bag of store-bought ice en route.

  • Greg says:

    To quote Jesse Pinkman, “Yo, Science!”

    And Bourbon Dork, just shut up. Arrogant and Wrong is a bad look on anyone and everyone. This woman was serving you a delicious drink that makes you feel good. What’s wrong with you? Treat her with respect. In fact, even if she wasn’t serving you a drink, still treat her with respect.

  • Satya says:

    Nail! Head! Hit! Well enough designed experiment and unarguable results.
    I do make clear ice myself the old fashioned (haha) way – igloo in freezer, pain in butt, do it cause it looks pretty! There’s one type of ice I do object to: the ice maker inside a normal fridge: typically makes smelly ice (maybe its just a cleaning thing) and I wouldn’t inflict that on anyone.
    How about an experiment in size of ice cubes used for stirring stirred drinks? I think it’s really wasteful to use big rocks for that, and if primary chilling is achieved by ice melting (latent heat 80cal/gm etc) then cube size should not matter as long as cubes are well covered in fluid. Indeed smaller cubes should require less stirring to reach same temp/dilution.

  • Tim says:

    A $20 5qt Igloo cooler can do directional freezing and I generally get about 10 good cubes. I always look at the ads for all the ice gadgets, but hundreds of dollars for some molds is very dumb.

  • Daniel says:

    I think dilution gets vilified as some sort of cardinal sin aswell.
    I’m quite fond of a nice Caribbean rum on the rocks. but more than once I have gotten carried away with company and convocation and left my rum alone a little too long. Was it diluted yes, was it not quite as cold as if I had got to it earlier yes, did I drink it still of course, did I enjoy it hell yeah, did the the flavour finish probably but I think that would just as likely be due to exposure to the air (evaporation, oxidation and etc) but it wasn’t the end of the world.

    Full disclosure I am not a bartender, I would classify myself as an armchair mixologist that is partial to buying overpriced gadgets. Still curious about clear ice for the aesthetic qualities but can’t justify a clear ice maker as my freezer is full of chicken nuggets for a fickle toddler.

    Greatly appreciate the effort you have put into debunking this.

    • I completely agree. Dilution is not the devil. And if, for some reason, you really need your spirit chilled with absolutely zero dilution, for god’s sake just keep the bottle in the freezer and be done with it. I’m known for keeping a bottle of Stoli or Ketel One in my freezer in the summer for that very reason. 🙂

  • Thomas Spaeth says:

    This is awesome. Two things come to mind, and they are largely related to cocktail bars rather than restaurants or bars with cocktail programs… the first is movement. When people have few things within reach besides their drink, many tend to move it around (like a less intense version of peeling beer labels). I’m curious how movement might affect the ultimate dilution. The other is spear ice in tall drinks. I’ve seen so many highball/Collins style drinks with 1.25” cubes where the ice appears to be 50% melted in under 5 minutes. At our bar we use silicon molds to make spears and those seem to last longer, while the ice programs around town that buy or make clear spears seem to outlast every drink they’re used in with what appears to be nearly negligible melting, at least in comparison to the other types. Now I’m curious if it’s just perceived or real. Not that most whiskey alphas are concerned with palomas and bucks, but as a bartender I am. I think some experiments of my own are in order. Thanks for inspiring!

    • Yeah with movement being fairly constant across all the different types of ice I think we can assume the effect is negligible there, too. I think the issue you’re seeing with 1.25″ cubes dissolving in under 5 minutes is with the freezer or storage bin they’re kept in. I’ve never seen dilution that rapid in cubes from my commercial freezers or even my little home freezer.

  • Tomas Fingal says:

    Great post! I often refer to your debunk of the rolling of lemons.
    My favorite ice comes out of my freezer, made in very ordinary ice molds. Kind of good looking in any cocktail too.

  • Travis says:

    What about the difference in using 1.25 cubes vs. “shitty ice”… is the difference again, less about size and shape and more about freezer temp? Put another way, are the 1.25 cubes better for the drink than an equal volume of pebble or gas station ice?

  • Jim Kelso says:

    See also : espresso; americano

    Good work, buddy.
    You’ve inspired a possible script for at-the-bar alpha douche behavior response for when the next phase finally comes.

  • Jeff says:

    Jeff – you keep saying “48” hours. Maybe I keep my contraption in a colder freezer, but I have my results with this same device in under 24 hours. In fact, I intentionally put mine in the Freezer at 9 pm knowing I’ll remove it at 7 pm the following day. I’m a bit of a nut in that not only do I own the same device as you, I also purchased their updated model that allows me to make a larger number of cubes (also in 22 hours). Fun fact: I just ordered their small cube mold because you often cite the 1.25 cubes as your favorite size. 🙂

    • Perhaps. It’s not like I was checking it every hour, but I did check on it after exactly 36 hours and it still wasn’t set. It probably took under 48 hours in my freezer, but it definitely took more than 36 for me.

  • Kyle D says:

    What about the guys who freak out if their drink is served in a coupe? Can we call them “coupe creeps” (trademark pending)?

  • Frank Caiafa says:

    I don’t know what I love more. Having bougie, nonsense theories properly debunked, or the word debunked.
    Thank you for the work.

  • Shelly Dailey says:

    Agreed – there is never a reason to be rude to your mixologist, no matter what. And the average consumer is not going to be able to taste or notice most of these differences anyway. What I will say is what I feel is a little flawed about this experiment is the water itself. You can taste impurities in some waters and clear ice does filter out many of those impurities/flavors – so flavor is a big item here that you don’t talk about accounting for (though I’m sure you’re aware). We distillers fuss about the water we use to make the product, so yeah, ice can make a difference if you’re making it with tap water that adds unwanted flavors. As far as volume – every little bit does lower the proof (and change flavor) but when you’re talking about those small amounts I too would guess it’s negligible over the course of a drink – you account for the entire drink sitting 20 minutes, when in reality you’re drinking it over time (spirit+water) so this experiment doesn’t account for that either – which would probably lend to the ice size/shape being even less of a factor when you’re sticking in that 1.25″-2″ size range.

  • Jon S says:

    Thanks for doing/posting the experiment!! Did you measure the temperature of the chilled pours? I imagine the larger cubes provide slightly more cooling given an equal amount of dilution, but it would be nice to confirm the magnitude.

    • You know I meant to do that and kinda forgot until about halfway through. And I was in a rush because the Superbowl was starting and I needed to work on my nacho cheese sauce. ANYWAY. That would good to know, yet I would imagine the difference is, again, negligible. I’ll see if I can go back and redo the experiment and collect those data.

  • Simon says:

    I remember back in the day we were allowed to serve customers….
    (UK😢)

  • Chris says:

    Picking on a new bartender is the lowest form of douchery.

  • Michael Goff says:

    “Aggressive Whiskey Knowing as Toxic Masculinity” My TED talk

  • Tom Landon says:

    Thank you so much for this! I’m currently reading a 2020 book about setting up a bar in L.A. (I won’t mention the name, but you blurbed the book). I just finished the chapter on why clear, large ice is critical to a proper cocktail, and your data-driven consideration of the topic just saved me expensive experiments of my own.

  • I bought the stupid $200 thing too, and sort of regret it. The upside is that people love the drinks I make at home for them, and so the clear ice does pad my ego a little I suppose.

  • Rodrigo Feijó says:

    The funniest thing to me about the story you told is someone pretending to be the biggest whiskey expert in the world… adding ice to their whiskey.
    I mean, drink your whiskey however you like it, it’s your money, your palate. Just don’t act like you’re Jim fucking McEwan.

    • In the pantheon of people who know a thing or two about liquor, I’m probably in one of the upper tiers. I drink my whiskey neat. Unless I feel like having it on the rocks. But sometimes I’ll just have it with a splash of water. It doesn’t make the whiskey any better or worse. It’s just different.

  • Tim says:

    I love seeing the myths that I once bought into enough to buy that stupid contraption, I just wish I had $200 to buy more whiskey with.

    I don’t suppose you tried this with shitty home freezer ice? I have my doubts that it would hold up at all, but would be even more interesting to find out if it did.

    Great work as always!

    • Thanks! Yeah, at least my drink-related purchases are tax-deductible and often reimbursable, but dang that thing was expensive.

      Anyway, I would have loved to try this with crappy home freezer ice but I don’t have an ice maker in my home freezer!

  • Jarred Craven says:

    You should make a floe chart.

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