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The Importance of Ice – A Tale of Two Drinks

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By Christine Sismondo

Not so very long ago, Brad Gubbins of the Toronto Institute of Bartending introduced me to the Bramble, a lovely spring cocktail if I’ve ever had one.

While many cocktail origins are fuzzy and, often apocryphal, the Bramble’s is not. It was invented in Soho (London) by a bartender named Dick Bradsell. It seems like a fairly simple drink: shake some gin, lemon and simple syrup together, pour over ice and then top with blackberry liqueur. However, there is one slightly complicated part: it must be made with finely crushed ice.

Bars often overlook the shape and quality of ice. If I ever get my own little cocktails and dreams spot open, that won’t be my mistake. I’m committed to good ice and at least three different sizes. Think I’m taking this too far? Not at all. In fact the reason for quite a few failed drinks is the ice.

First off, you want fresh ice. Consider throwing out all that pesky food that might give your ice a bad smell. If you can’t do that, though, make sure you refill your trays frequently. We’re not winning any environmentalist awards for any of this, I’m sure, but we try to remember to dump them about every other day. I can’t abide freezer smell in my cocktails. And I shouldn’t even have to point out that the better the water, the better the ice.

Cubes are fine for shaking. And, indeed, even the Bramble is fine to shake with good old pedestrian cubes – didn’t mean to mislead you. Just make sure the cubes are nice and cold – fresh out of the freezer and don’t be trying to re-use ice in several cocktails. A lot of people also try to use the shaking ice in the cocktail. Another no-no. That’s why the cocktail shaker has a strainer.

After shaking, you should always pour on to new, fresh ice and, depending on the drink, you want to vary the size of that ice. Which brings me back to the Bramble or any other summery, slushy drink. Think of a daiquiri. You wouldn’t attempt to serve that on the rocks, right? Same with a Bramble which has three distinct tastes – beginning, middle and end – thanks to the melting ice.

Crushing ice is simple. I have a hand-crank ice crusher, which is noisy, clumsy and awkward, but I put up with because of the beautiful and consistent ice it produces. These can be bought fairly cheaply. Cheaper yet is wrapping ice in a towel and pounding it with a mallet.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Old Fashioned or the Sazerac, which were precisely the two drinks I was allowed to choose between on my most recent trip to Sidecar. Bill Sweete set up the options and Casey Bee did the mixing. I understood why I wasn’t allowed to choose anything else once I saw the drink since Sweete and Bee are rightly proud of their new, lovely, large cubes of ice in my first-rate Old Fashioned. I’m going to say it was one large cube and that it was about the size of a tennis ball but, really, it’s been a long time since I played tennis.

This matters to us cocktail geeks because of the surface area of the ice and how quickly the drink is getting watered down. We all get that as long as our drinks are getting cooler, they’re also being diluted, but the rate of dilution can be controlled and, with some drinks, especially whiskey-based ones, slowing down the process is really important. There’s nothing worse than rushing through your Old Fashioned in fear of it turning into a puddle of whiskey-flavoured water. If you want to savour the changing flavours, you need a nice big chunk of ice.

Once you hear someone’s philosophy of ice (or try a drink made properly with a big cube) it makes a lot of sense. So no more excuse. Throw out that old freezer-burnt ice and get the mallet out.

But don’t stick your tongue on the ice. At least not until it’s in the drink.

Old Fashioned (recipe taken from Jeffrey Morgenthaler)
2 oz bourbon
¼ oz rich simple syrup (2-1 sugar to water ratio)
Orange twist
2 dashes bitters

With a muddler, press the orange, bitters and syrup together. Add bourbon. Stir. Add good ice. Stir.

To watch Morgenthaler make it, click here.

2 oz Hendrick’s Gin
1½ oz lemon juice
½ oz simple syrup
½ oz blackberry liqueur

Shake all ingredients except the blackberry liqueur together well. Strain over crushed ice. Add liqueur.


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