We asked professional bartenders for advice.
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When mixing up craft cocktails at home, every detail counts: the quality of spirits, the balance of the recipe components, the glassware, and the garnish. But one element that's often overlooked? The type of ice you use, which has a massive impact on the finished cocktail. Here's how ice size and shape affects the taste of your cocktail.

The Size and Density of Your Ice Determine the Dilution Factor

As the ice melts, it dilutes a cocktail—which might be desired in certain cocktail types but discouraged in others. Althea Codamon, general manager and beverage director at Aita Restaurant and Mayflower Bar in Brooklyn, explains: "The smaller the shape or less dense the ice is (like those hollow tubes or pebble ice), the faster the dilution rate—which means more water making a beverage weaker. The larger or denser the shape of ice (like big cubes or spheres), the more control over the dilution rate." 

Cocktail expert Heather Wibbels of Cocktail Contessa points out that size isn't the only thing that matters: You should also consider the surface area of different ice shapes. "If you compare a two-inch cube of ice to a two-inch sphere of ice, the surface area of the cube is almost double that of the sphere. The cocktail will dilute faster when served over a cube and even faster if served in a glass of one-inch cubes or pebble ice."

cocktail with large cubed ice
Credit: Cris Cantón / Getty Images

The Type of Water Makes a Difference

Many bartenders believe that the quality of the water used to make your ice is also important to consider. "The dirty secret we don't talk about is what you're pouring into your ice molds. If you don't enjoy your tap water, you won't enjoy ice made from it. And as it melts into the drink, these flavors are only going to be more pronounced. Use filtered or bottled water," says Laura Unterberg, head bartender at Nashville's The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club.

The Freezer Also Plays a Role

The freshness of your ice is crucial! Pay attention to what else you're storing in your freezer—it's very common to have frozen food that gives off odors that your ice then absorbs. For an easy fix, Unterberg says, "Make sure to wrap your ice mold before placing it in a freezer that contains food."

What Types of Ice Are Best for Each Cocktail Category?

Spirit-forward cocktails like old fashioneds, Manhattans, and Negronis are best served with a single big cube: "If you don't have one, serve some cubes in the side so that you can control the dilution," recommends Alex Delgado, beverage manager at the Lake Nona Wave Hotel in Florida. Large cubes are also terrific for spirits "on the rocks." Highballs like gin and tonics or vodka sodas should be served over regular cubed ice; it helps accentuate the carbonation.

Tropical drinks like the mai-tai, jungle birds, and tiki cocktails are sweeter or fruitier, which means they benefit from higher dilution—it helps balance the cocktail. They are delicious over crushed ice or pebble ice (several of our bartenders recommended an insider tip: buying pellet ice from your local fast food restaurant is best for these drinks). Shaken and strained cocktails, like martinis, are the category where the type of ice you use doesn't really matter; since you're only using it to chill and dilute the cocktail and not serve, any ice type is acceptable.

Should You Invest in Specialty Ice Molds?

Wibbels gives a resounding yes to this: "At the very least, have a large format square and large format sphere cube molds. I personally love to use one-inch cubes to freeze water or juices/coffee/teas to melt in a cocktail in place of some or all of the ice. Large format cubes and spheres are available at a very reasonable price online."

Unterberg says that in addition to the classic ice styles, consider having a fun ice-mold option. "The number one rule is, it's your drink," she says. "Are those Star Wars ice molds perhaps the 'best' ice for a cocktail? No. But do you enjoy sipping on a Death Star old-fashioned? Then go for it!"

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