Matthew Zach/Ali Nardi

On the Rocks: The Best Ways to Cool Your Whiskey

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As many bartenders will tell you, ice is to their craft what heat is to a chef in a kitchen. Bartenders use ice to cool drinks (obv), to add texture, and to balance the flavors within them, softening some elements while enhancing others, like adjusting the equalizer on your sound system. It’s arguably the most important component of a drink.

So it’s a little curious that ice was pretty much the last element (after fresh ingredients, homemade syrups, precise technique, etc) to get a reset in the great cocktail revival of the past two decades. But that oversight has been corrected—in a big way—thanks to a wave of artisanal producers and their Clinebell machines. These devices use a bottom-up freezing method and constant water circulation to eliminate air bubbles and impurities in ice. The result is crystal-clear, diamond-hard and dense ice that’s tailor-made for stirring, shaking, cooling and diluting your drinks.

When it comes to whiskey, there are several ways to go, whether you’re drinking it in a cocktail or not. But one thing is as clear as a massive block of artisanal ice: you should never use that cloudy, crescent-shaped stuff produced at the touch of a button by your fridge. It melts too quickly, adding more water than you want, and it looks awful. Here, a range of options for cooling your favorite brown liquid, along with some cocktail-ice science.

Large Cube/Ice Sphere

The idea behind oversized cubes is that they have less surface area to come in contact with the liquid than a number of smaller cubes would. They’ll therefore melt at a slower rate and dilute your drink less. A large ice sphere can provide the same volume as an oversized cube, with even less surface area. But both will, in effect, add just a splash of water to your dram, which, according to science, is the best way to enjoy whiskey.
 

Whiskey Wedge

As San Francisco bartender Jennifer Colliau told Wired, “A lot of ice nerds like to talk about how an ice sphere has the least amount of surface area to it, but a flat plane has [even] less.” So the Whiskey Wedge—a flat plane of ice frozen at an angle into your glass—not only looks the coolest, it literally is the coolest. It will chill your drink longer, melt slower, and dilute less. Win, win, win.

Matthew Zach/Ali Nardi

Whiskey Stones

If you want to cool your drink without diluting it at all, you can try any one of the many whiskey stones on the market. Stick them in the freezer for four hours then pop them in a rocks glass and pour your dram. They’re ideal for making whiskey slightly cooler than neat. Downside: they’re a bit of a pain to clean.
 

Stainless Steel Ice Cubes

If you want to genuinely chill, rather than merely cool, your whiskey without diluting it, these liquid-filled, reusable stainless-steel cubes are the way to go. The liquid within them freezes after four hours and, thanks to the highly conductive stainless steel casing, they will get your drink colder than whiskey stones, as demonstrated by several spirits bloggers. When you’re done, a simple rinse gets them ready for another use.

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Matthew Zach/Ali Nardi

Whether it’s served over an ice sphere, a massive single cube, or a stylish frozen wedge, whiskey on the rocks is a classic. And Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks is a classic among classics, a genuinely iconic drink. Get it right, with quality ice that will chill without diluting, and it’s a perfect showcase for the spectrum of flavors in Johnnie Walker Black Label, from vanilla and citrus to spice and smoke.

Home Ice Tips

You can get artisanal-grade ice at many craft-cocktail bars these days, and the bartenders will know what they’re doing when it comes to deploying the frozen stuff in their drinks creation.

But what if you want to step up your ice game at home? You can spring for a directional-freezing ice kit, or use the ice-tray-within-a-cooler-in-the-freezer method, or several other fairly involved home techniques. Or you can follow a few simple tips to make better ice in your humble home freezer. They’re not going to get you perfect, crystal clear cubes, but they will level up your ice.  

  • Get some quality ice trays: Tovolo makes a King Cube tray, as well as a Perfect Cube set, and they’re both excellent.
  • Place your trays in a level spot in the freezer where they’ll be exposed to equal airflow on all sides.
  • Turn down your freezer temperature slightly. When ice freezes quickly, air pockets get trapped in the cube, clouding it up. If you slow down the process, it gives the air bubbles a chance to escape.
  • Boil your tap water before freezing it. There are some myths and half-truths out there about using distilled, filtered, or purified water, but the one about boiling your water—regular old tap water—before freezing it is the most tried and true.

Matthew Zach/Ali Nardi

Bonus Cocktail-Ice Science!

Cocktail ice comes in multiple forms for multiple purposes. There are some shapes, like the long Collins style, or pebbled ice, that you may not work with much at home. But there are others that can really boost your personal cocktail game. For instance, if you’re making a shaken drink like a Whiskey Sour, try shaking with oversized cubes. They’ll increase the aeration and produce a pleasing, lightly frothy head for your finished product.

If you’re making a stirred drink like a Manhattan, cracked ice is the way to go. Take a large or a standard cube, and rap it with the back side of your barspoon. Crack a few of them, and the resulting splintered shards will offer increased surface area to cool and dilute your cocktail properly.

For a next-level tip, take a page from Colliau’s book at The Interval in San Francisco and use a digital thermometer barspoon to stir your drinks. As she told drinks writer Adam Rogers, it’s possible to take a drink’s temperature below freezing by stirring. Thermal energy is expended as you stir and the ice melts into the cocktail; it gets very cold, but it won’t freeze because of the alcohol in it. With a digital thermometer, you can take your drinks to precise temperatures (which equal levels of dilution).

Colliau stirs her Manhattan to exactly 32 degrees, because it’s a naturally balanced cocktail that doesn’t need much dilution. She brings her Old Fashioneds to 35 degrees, then serves them on a Whiskey Wedge to ensure extended cooling and minimal further dilution. For higher-proof recipes, she’ll stir until the drink’s temperature is well below freezing. This slightly prolonged dilution rounds off the alcohol notes in the drink, while brightening other elements like fresh citrus, and yielding a sparkling, extremely balanced final product.

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