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Do we really need clear ice in cocktails?

Clear ice is almost de rigueur if you're running a quality cocktail establishment – is it all form and no function?

I remember my first encounter with a piece of clear ice. It was as if Scrooge McDuck had leapt out of the TV to place a cartoonishly large diamond in my glass of whisky. I spent most of that night captivated, watching the crystal clear ice catch whatever scant light there was in the bar. Then I snapped out of that – and I bet this is a sentence you’ve never heard before – ice-induced reverie, disturbed that I was being seduced by what was essentially a chunk of frozen water.

But was it honestly that simple? I consider myself a consummate cynic, one that far values functionality over form, and this clear ice, in my books, belonged in the same category as gold flakes and charcoal powder – frivolous and with a presence that was likely masking some kind of inadequacy of flavour.

I was dead wrong.

The immediate argument is that one tastes with their eyes first – and this is doubly true for the theatrics-filled world of cocktail bars. But, far beyond that, clear ice has practical benefits. There are no air bubbles trapped in it, so it is harder and denser, and its large size minimises surface area, keeping your drink cold for longer. What really blew me away though, was the amount of craft and effort that goes into producing this relatively tiny detail in a cocktail.

This takes days to make and involves a technique called directional freezing – when water is slowly frozen from one single direction. Doing this pushes the impurities towards the end of the block. Without these extraneous particles, there are no nucleation points for the water to crystallise around, resulting in clear, glass-like ice.

Once frozen, the ice is cut to fit neatly into corresponding glassware: cubes for tumblers and rectangular “spears” for high ball glasses. Sometimes, they are even painstakingly carved a la minute into multifaceted “jewels” for not-inexpensive orders of Japanese whisky. It turned out that every subsequent encounter with this new form of ice was followed by exceptional boozing.

Cocktail bars that bother with good ice also tend to have it all together: incredible attention to detail, great service and quality ingredients. And, unlike those gold flakes, I have come to associate clear ice with enjoyable experiences and, at the risk of hyperbole, some of the greatest nights of my life.

It’s the difference between being served wine out of glass instead of plastic –and there’s no way I’m ever drinking wine out of plastic.

Featured image: the Vera Wang-inspired Kukuihaele from Manhattan bar, which features American whisky, pineapple rum, bergamot liqueur, and raspberry-infused Cocchi Americano. Served in a glass with a crystal clear cube of ice – of course. Photo: Lim Ming Long

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