history of ice in cocktails

From Luxury to Commonplace: Ice’s Fascinating History

Refreshing, cool, ice. This often-overlooked crystal clear ingredient has a rich history that spans centuries and continents, coming to play a critical role in food and beverages over time. From ancient methods of ice collection to modern refrigeration, ice has gone from a luxury to a daily necessity. 

ice cubes in glass

Here we dive into its long and storied history.

Early Use of Ice

In ancient times, civilizations like the Persians and Romans harvested ice from mountains to cool their food and drinks and stored it in underground ice houses insulated with straw or sawdust to keep it from melting. A far cry from the modern refrigeration methods we know today!

The 19th-Century Ice Trade

The commercial ice trade began in the early 1800s, thanks to a Boston entrepreneur named Frederic Tudor, known as the “Ice King.” Tudor had the idea to harvest ice from New England’s frozen lakes and ponds and ship it to warmer places like the Caribbean and India.

ice arriving on island

Predictably, Tudor faced many challenges. First, figuring out how to cut and store large blocks of ice during the cold New England winters. And once that was accomplished, how to store it to keep it from melting until it could be shipped.

Shipping the ice was another challenge. Tudor found that insulating the ice with sawdust and hay, as the Persians and Romans had done, worked well to keep it from melting during long sea voyages. In 1806, he successfully shipped ice to the Caribbean island of Martinique, sparking a new industry.

By the mid-1800s, ice had become a global commodity, with people in hot climates now enjoying cold drinks and better food preservation. The ability to enjoy cold treats and fresh food for longer drastically improved the quality of life.

Frederic Tudor’s ice trade laid the foundation for modern refrigeration.

Refrigeration Technology

The invention of artificial refrigeration in the late 1800s and early 1900s changed how we produce and use ice with mechanical ice-making machines becoming common in industries—and later in homes. By the mid-1900s, home refrigerators made ice easily accessible, once again spurring a change in daily living.

Early refrigerator

The widespread use of ice had a direct impact on what we know of the bar scene today, bringing a host of new opportunities in beverage-making.

Importance of Ice in Cocktails

Ice, it goes without saying, plays a crucial role in making cocktails. Beyond cooling, which makes a beverage much more refreshing, it serves a variety of functions.

Dilution

As ice melts, it dilutes the cocktail, balancing the flavors and softening strong spirits. The right amount of dilution can actually work to improve the taste of the drink.

Texture

Different types of ice can completely alter the texture of a cocktail. Crushed ice creates a slushy, smooth texture, while larger ice cubes provide a different mouthfeel and slow down dilution, as shown in this list:

  • Standard Ice Cubes: Used for cooling and controlled dilution
  • Crushed Ice: Ideal for quick cooling and a slushy texture, perfect for drinks like the Mint Julep

Mint julep with ice

  • Large Ice Cubes/Balls: Melt slowly, keeping spirit-forward drinks like the Old Fashioned cold without too much dilution

Sphere ice cubes in whiskey

  • Ice Shards/Flakes: Used for specific textures and presentation in cocktails

Presentation

Ice enhances the look of a cocktail. Clear, well-shaped ice cubes make a drink look more inviting and professional. Some bars get creative and make their own shapes to bring a level of artistry to their cocktails.

Technique

Ice is essential in cocktail-making techniques like shaking and stirring. Shaking with ice chills and aerates the drink, creating a frothy texture. Stirring with ice mixes the ingredients and achieves the right dilution and temperature.

frothy cocktail

Latest Innovations in Ice

Ice is still evolving, having recently seen some exciting changes, especially for cocktails and beverages. One of the biggest advancements is the creation of clear ice, which sounds straightforward, but actually takes a bit of work.

This type of ice is made by controlling the freezing process to reduce air bubbles and impurities, which results in crystal-clear ice cubes. Clear ice melts slower than regular ice, keeping drinks cold without watering them down quickly. The clarity also brings a touch of sophistication to any beverage.

perfectly clear ice

Custom ice shapes have also become popular. Bartenders and mixologists now use molds to create ice in various shapes like spheres, diamonds, and large cubes. These unique shapes not only look impressive, but also serve practical purposes. Larger ice shapes melt more slowly, making them perfect for drinks like Whiskey or an Old Fashioned.

Flavored ice has become a trend as well. These ice cubes are infused with flavors like herbs, fruits, or coffee, adding extra taste to cocktails as the ice melts. This makes the overall drinking experience more enjoyable.

decorative floral ice cubes

Sonic ice, known as nugget ice, has gained a following for its soft, chewable texture. This type of ice is great for cocktails that need quick cooling and slight dilution, like Mojitos and Mint Juleps. People also love to chew on this type of ice because of its pleasant texture.

Some interesting FAQs about ice

When was ice first used in cocktails?

Ice was first used in cocktails in the early 19th century. The practice became popular in the 1830s and 1840s, particularly in the United States, where bartenders began to realize that ice could enhance the flavors and presentation of mixed drinks.

Why are cocktails mostly ice?

Cocktails are mostly ice because ice chills the drink balances the flavors through controlled dilution, and enhances the texture and presentation. Properly chilled cocktails taste better and provide a more refreshing and enjoyable drinking experience.

Who invented the ice cubes for drinks?

John Gorrie, an American doctor, is often credited with inventing the first ice-making machine in the 1840s, which led to the creation of ice cubes for drinks. His invention initially aimed at cooling hospital rooms for fever patients, but eventually revolutionized how we use ice in beverages.

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