Ice 101: Solving the mystery of ice in cocktails

By / Wine + Drinks / July 29th, 2019 / 16
Ice in cocktails

Do you know how to use ice? Most of us probably think we do, having achieved Level One Ice Competency back when we were kids, sucking on cubes and loading our drinks with them in the hot summer months. Ice isn’t child’s play, though, especially when it comes to tropical and tiki drinks, both of which require special attention when it comes to the ice. The secret to both, though, is pebble ice.

“We serve the majority of our cocktails on crushed ice,” says Jason Laidlaw of the Shameful Tiki Room in Vancouver. “We’ve got a large machine that, inside, kind of looks like a wood chipper and spits out pebble ice, which are little chunks of ice about five millimetres around, similar to what you would see if you went to a fish shop.”

Also called “nugget ice,” the chunks are a fair bit bigger than the really finely-crushed ice used to make snow cones and fluffy “shaved-ice” drinks. And, since they’re bigger, the pebbles melt relatively slowly, which is perfect for keeping a long, tall and juicy tiki drink from becoming a big slushy mess.

Crushed ice is also, incidentally, the key to making perfect tropical blender drinks, such as Margaritas, Daiquiris and Pina Coladas — not technically tiki drinks, although they’re often confused. A lot of home users simply toss cubes straight from the freezer into the blender along with, say, a ripe banana, rum, sugar and lime juice and then wonder why they have big lumps of ice floating around and getting in the way of enjoying their Banana Daiquiri. Crushing the ice first — before blending — solves this problem and will lead to a more consistent texture.

“If you’re just making a drink or two, little hand-crank ice crushers are great,” says Laidlaw. “Unfortunately, you really have to track down a vintage one, because the new ones aren’t very sturdy and are made with a lot of plastic instead of metal. I think the old brand was Swing Away, which aren’t that hard to find.”

The hand-crank requires patience, but churns out perfect, completely uniform nuggets, which are not only good for the drink, but also make for a beautiful visual effect. Bartenders, on the other hand, are more likely to buy a Lewis ice bag (really just a good canvas bag that comes with a mallet) and pound the ice until it’s crushed fairly evenly. The bonus of this method, is, of course, that pounding ice into shards has some therapeutic value as well.

The third option, of course, is to invest in a nugget ice maker, which pumps out perfect pebbles effortlessly. But, Laidlaw says, if you love tiki drinks that much, you should probably just open your own tiki bar.

Atomic Zombie

This is an original, gorgeously complex cocktail made by Rhett Williams, who works with Laidlaw.

1 oz Wray & Nephew overproof Rum
3/4 oz Ardbeg 10-year-old Scotch
3/4 oz green Chartreuse
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz falernum*
1 bar spoon grenadine*
1/2 oz Don’s mix**
6 drops of Pernod
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 sprig of mint

Fill a glass with all of the ingredients except the mint. Fill part-way with crushed ice, then “swizzle” it — a cocktail-mixing that technique requires sticking a bois lélé (a.k.a. swizzle stick) into the drink (with the prongs at the bottom), clapping your hands together around the sticking and rubbing your hands together until the drink is well mixed. Add more crushed ice until it’s practically overflowing. Garnish with the mint.

*Grenadine, cinnamon syrup, and falernum are available commercially. We suggest BG Reynolds syrups, which can be bought from or other good cocktail supply shops.

**Don’s mix: 2/3 grapefruit juice (white preferred) to 1/3 cinnamon syrup.


Christine Sismondo is a National Magazine Award-Winning drinks columnist and the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History as well as America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

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