Sunday May 27, 2012
On the rocks
By MICHAEL CHEANG
Having survived the trials of fire last time around, our columnist now turns his frosty eyes towards the subject of ice in drinks.
ICE cubes, crushed ice, shaved ice, ice balls... there are so many different ways to use ice in your drinks. You can shake it up together with your margarita mix, stir it in a glass with your martini, or just add a few cubes into your Scotch.
However, there is more to ice than just keeping your drink cold – it can also affect the flavour and body of the drink.
It goes without saying that ice is made out of water, so as it melts, more water goes into your drink. If you don’t use the correct type or amount of ice for that shot of single malt whisky, you might end up with whisky-flavoured water instead.
Even where your ice comes from is important. Have you tried sniffing the ice cubes from the tray in the freezer at home? If you also happen to use that freezer to store your frozen meats, then chances are your ice will smell (and taste) like raw meat as well. Now imagine having that flavour in your martini...
In our climate where drinks tend to get warmer much faster than they do in the more temperate parts of the world, the role of ice becomes even more crucial. Heck, some people here even put ice in their beer and wine (sacrilege!) to keep it cold.
Ice is especially important when it comes to cocktails. It doesn’t matter whether you’re shaking it, stirring it or just using it to chill your glass, how a bartender uses ice will affect your cocktail in a lot more ways than just making it colder.
Let’s start with a well-known example, shall we? When James Bond orders a vodka martini “shaken, not stirred”, he is essentially asking for his drink to be shaken with the ice inside a cocktail shaker, instead of the classic way of stirring it with ice cubes before being strained into the martini glass. However, this method also means the mixture is left in the ice longer, and would also contain a lot more of the ice (and water), resulting in a colder, but less flavourful vodka, martini.
According to mixologist Ben Ng of Fluid Alchemy (a training and consultancy firm specialising in mixology and drinks), most cocktails usually call for either crushed or cubed ice (shaved ice is generally frowned upon because it melts way too quickly) .
“I would use ice cubes when I want to shake a drink; you can’t use crushed ice for that because it would dilute the drink too much,” he said, adding that the ice you use in your drinks depends on the flavours you want to bring out in your drink.
To demonstrate the difference between the two types of ice, Ng whipped up two glasses of the classic Brazilian cocktail caipirinha (made with cachaça, sugar, and lime) – one with crushed ice, and the other with ice cubes.
“The caipirinha is the perfect drink to demonstrate the use of ice, as there is a dispute amongst bartenders about how it should be made,” he said. “The classic Brazilian recipe calls for the drink to be shaken with ice cubes and served in a glass with ice cubes, while many European bartenders prefer to stir the drink first then pour it over a glass of crushed ice.”
Ng himself prefers his caipirinha with ice cubes, and I was inclined to agree. It was certainly much, much more flavourful and complex, with the sugarcane flavour of the cachaça standing out nicely. In contrast, the crushed ice version was too cold, and though it was much more refreshing and easy drinking, it was also less satisfying in terms of flavour.
“With the crushed ice, the caipirinha is much easier to drink because it is colder,” said Ng. “But with ice cubes, the drink is slightly warmer and the flavour of the cachaça is heavier and more apparent.”
Unfortunately, most bartenders don’t even consider the importance of ice. To them, it is just there to make the drink cold. One of my pet peeves whenever I order a whisky on the rocks at a bar is getting a glass of whisky drowned in a mountain of ice. The problem with putting too much ice in your whisky is that it masks the flavours of the drink. While it wouldn’t matter so much in a lower end whisky (in which case muting the flavour might actually improve the drink!), when it comes to the good stuff like the more flavourful single malt whiskies, or premium blends like Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Royal Salute, one would want to savour those fruity, smoky, caramel-y, nutty and woody flavours properly. With too much ice, those wonderful flavours would not be able to come through properly. The same applies to aged spirits such as cognac, tequila and rum.
I like taking my whisky neat, or with just two ice cubes and no water. This way, the whisky does not become too cold, and even though the ice cubes melt faster than ice balls, it doesn’t dilute the whisky too much, and in some cases, it even helps to unlock the flavours in the whisky as well.
You could also use an ice ball to keep your whisky cold. Scotch single malt producers Macallan actually have an ice-ball making machine that can turn a chunk of ice into a perfect spherical ice ball by using a combination of gravity and the frictional-heating qualities of copper. These ice balls have been proven to melt a lot slower than other forms of ice, thus keeping your whisky nice and chilled longer without diluting it too much.
Now, what I’ve mentioned here merely scratches the surface of how ice can affect your drinks, but it goes to show just how important it is in your drink. All the same, there really is no right or wrong way to use ice – whether you prefer your caipirinhas with crushed ice or ice cubes; or your whisky with lots of ice or just an ice ball is entirely up to you. Just don’t let me catch you putting ice in my beer...
Hell will probably freeze over before Michael even considers putting ice in his beer or wine.