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Breaking Ice in the Hands -- Why?


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Good Evening. :biggrin:

Why are bartenders breaking ice cubes up in their hands believing it to be an authentic way of preparing cocktails? I have yet to see a reference to any ye olde tome saying that it is okay to manually handle ice at any time. However places like Milk and Honey, Pegu Club etc are grabbing ice cubes with their hands and then thwacking said ice with an implement. Why do they do this? Is their any historical basis for this practice?

In Robert Vermeire's book (which I am thoroughly enjoying by the way), he uses "Broken Ice" in most, if not all, of his drinks; But he does not say "Broken Ice Cubes".

Looking through his list of recommended bar equipment he lists an ice pick, which would be used for breaking up big old blocks of ice. Why would he break up this ice again (in his hands), when he could break it down to the required size when he is chiseling the main block of ice?

Vermiere doesn't advocate the use of greasy mitts in the breaking of ice, quite the opposite...fork and spoon for fruit????

Where does the practice of breaking ice up in ones hands originate from? Is it laziness? Or just bad practice that no-ones picked up on?

Supposed leading bars using their hands to hold ice is laughable, have they never heard of a lewis bag?

Personally I think it is unprofessional to break ice this way.

Does anyone want to explain/ justify this practice?

Cheers!

George

Edited by ThinkingBartender (log)
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The thermodynamic reasons for using cracked ice in the preparation of certain drinks are well understood, and explained in sufficient detail here and elsewhere. So, I gather that you are not questioning the use of cracked ice so much as the way the cracked ice is produced. I don't believe that "bartenders are breaking ice cubes up in their hands believing it to be an 'authentic' way of preparing cocktails" so much as they are doing it because there is an advantage to using cracked ice, and this is the most efficient way of getting cracked ice.

Please elucidate as to a more practical way to get cracked ice. It's not as though each bar is starting the evening with a few gigantic blocks of ice which are broken down with ice picks. How do you get cracked ice?

Certainly things like the Tap-Icer have been around for a long time (50+ years), and my grandfather (born 1897 and a lifelong cocktailian) used to crack ice cubes in his hand using the back of a spoon. So it's certainly not a modern invention. I'd guess that ice cubes have been cracked by hand going back at least until the end of prohibition, when mixology largely transferred to the home and electric freezers became ubiquitous. More to the point, this would coincide with ice being mostly in cube rather than block form. Prior to that time, ice was likely delivered in blocks and broken down... well... by hand (albeit using a pick and other instruments).

Vermiere and others don't mention breaking down ice cubes by hand because they didn't have ice cubes. Whatever "lumps" of ice they had to work with would have been broken off the block, and when you're doing that there is no reason why you shouldn't break off smaller pieces if that is what you would like to use.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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i've seen photos of devices that look like nut crackers meant for cold draft sized ice but i've never seen a bar that used them... in theory they seem even faster and more practical than spoon whacking though it seems like hands still get involved as the best way to load the device.

http://icetoolcollections.com/

ice tool collections presents a nice time line with great photos.

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I've used something like this from time to time. It tends to get gummed-up with ice after around 2 cubes or so, and doesn't work any better than doing it by hand.

To be clear, what George is suggesting is that bartenders bring out a Lewis bag and mallet every time they need to crack some ice.

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It's not as though each bar is starting the evening with a few gigantic blocks of ice which are broken down with ice picks.

Isn't that basically what most of Sasha's bars actually do? But I think the main answer is just that cracking ice cubes is quick enough (and looks cool enough) that there's not that much to be gained by getting pre-cracked ice. Given all the stuff the bartender is doing with garnishes and the like anyway, I'm not all that scared of getting cooties from his touching the ice.
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To play the devil's advocate, bartenders tend to handle money a lot; then picking up ice with those hands is somewhat suspect. In New York City, it's probably against the health codes, but we haven't seen any bars shut down by the DOH...yet.

Same goes for garnishes, but at least at the "cocktailian" bars we frequent, the bartenders aren't actually sticking their hands into a vat of olives like they tend to do in some of the lesser establishments. Most of the garnishes (cherries, etc.) are picked up with picks.

Are there any machines which make cracked ice as opposed to crushed ice? That way cracked ice could be available by the tubful and scooped into a shaker.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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Are there any machines which make cracked ice as opposed to crushed ice?  That way cracked ice could be available by the tubful and scooped into a shaker.

I recently broke down and bought a Waring Pro ice crusher and the size it makes is pretty large for 'crushed' ice. I'd say that depending on how you want to look at it it's either a coarse cush or fine crack. Either way I don't think it's an inappropriate size for stirring cocktails with...the average size is about that of a marble or maybe a little smaller.

Andy Arrington

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I think the idea is that freshly cracked ice produces more and colder surface area to chill the drink with less dilution. Kold-Draft ice may be "colder than freezing" coming out of the machine, but after hours sitting in an open ice bin the temperature of the outside of the ice cube is closer to 35 degrees. Cracking cubes fresh for each drink renders the inside of the cube exposed for maximum coldness.

That being said, I witnessed a bit of a throwdown a few weeks ago when a Seattle bartender was guest bartending with us one night. My co-worker used whole KD cubes and our guest used freshly cracked to make a martini. They each stirred for a minute, then measured the volume and temperature. The drink made with whole cubes was colder and less diluted than the one with cracked. We will have to repeat this experiment many times to fully convince me of its results, but I was surprised as I know so many bars that crack, and bartenders that are convinced of its superiority.

After all this, I think I prefer the White Star method of keeping whole KD ice in covered ice bins. It would be a little weird for those of use who have spent our entire careers using exposed ice wells, but I think I'd get used to it pretty quick.

Small Hand Foods

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Interesting test, Feste. Interesting because I've done the test many times myself and have always got a colder drink using cracked ice.

Some questions:

1. Did they use the same number of cubes, or did they use different numbers of cubes? One advantage of using cracked ice is that you can fit a greater mass of ice into the mixing vessel.

2. How full did they fill the mixing vessel with ice? And what was the ratio of ice to liquid?

3. Why stir for the same period of time? And why stir for such a long time? Who stirs a cocktail for 60 seconds?

I would propose a test like this:

Take two large mixing tins. Fill one with whole Kold-Draft cubes. Fill the other with hand-cracked Kold-Draft cubes. Fill them all the way to the top with however many cubes that might take for each. Drop in two ounces ounces of cheap 100 proof whiskey and one ounce of vermouth. Stir until each one seems to have reached the proper amount of dilution for a Manhattan (tasting to determine, if necessary), however long that may take for each. Strain and immediately test for temperature. Measure volume. It is probably best not to do these simultaneously, so that one bartender can give his full attention to the dilution (and who presumably has one idea about the proper level of dilution).

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It's not as though each bar is starting the evening with a few gigantic blocks of ice which are broken down with ice picks.

Isn't that basically what most of Sasha's bars actually do? But I think the main answer is just that cracking ice cubes is quick enough (and looks cool enough) that there's not that much to be gained by getting pre-cracked ice. Given all the stuff the bartender is doing with garnishes and the like anyway, I'm not all that scared of getting cooties from his touching the ice.

You don't really want to talk about Sasha's ice programs here, do you? They have lots of different types of ice at his bars: large rectangular blocks for collinses and long drinks, large cubes for rocks drinks, large chunks to be used for shaking or broken for stirring and pellets for juleps and swizzles. Part of the benefit of cracked ice versus pellet or shell ice is the irregular shape and size of the fragments - which allows for the most subtle variations that makes each cocktail taste both the same and a little bit different each time.

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Who stirs a cocktail for 60 seconds?

Actually, I do. I keep pint glasses in the freezer, and find that 60 seconds over whole KD cubes makes a deliciously cold, yet not overdiluted cocktail.

Incidentally, here is another informal experiment I did with the same co-worker, as I tried to prove that frozen pint glasses were the best for mixing. I was worried that the temperature would be so cold that proper dilution would not be taking place.

(While mixing an Astoria:)

One room temp glass, 60 second stir: 35 degrees.

One frozen pint glass, 60 second stir: 32 degrees, less dilution.

One frozen pint glass, 90 second stir: 30 degrees, same dilution as number 2. Lower temperature gave less flavor.

Number 2 was the agreed upon winner.

Certainly, when using the skittles that pass as ice in the majority of bars, I wouldn't stir for longer than 10-15 seconds to prevent overdilution. But with frozen pint glasses and big ol' ice cubes, 60 seconds seems to work.

Small Hand Foods

classic ingredients for pre-prohibition era cocktails

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I've always wondered if there's an optimum temperature where dilution theoretically 'stops' (or should I say delayed?!?) when shaking/stirring if you were using ice at its coldest/hardest/densest freshly taken from a machine?

For example if you were to shake a Daiquiri (50ml rum, 25ml, lime, 15ml rich sugar syrup) with said cubes, let's say in a mixing glass heaped with cubed ice and capped with a metal shaker, and shook it as hard as possible, will the Daiquiri reach a temperature where the ice stops melting so all you're doing then is chilling the drink?

I'm sure there must be some sort of equation where you could work out how cold and how much ice you need to chill/dilute a drink to its optimum!

'x' + 'y' + 'z' + 'a' = b

x = amount of liquid

y = temperature and number of ice cubes

z = force needed to shake/stir

a = length of time

b = optimum temperature

Who says it's just a drink huh? :smile:

I may not have explained this properly, but it does make sense in my head. :wacko:

Edited by evo-lution (log)

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It's not as though each bar is starting the evening with a few gigantic blocks of ice which are broken down with ice picks.

Isn't that basically what most of Sasha's bars actually do?

You don't really want to talk about Sasha's ice programs here, do you? They have lots of different types of ice at his bars: large rectangular blocks for collinses and long drinks, large cubes for rocks drinks, large chunks to be used for shaking or broken for stirring and pellets for juleps and swizzles. Part of the benefit of cracked ice versus pellet or shell ice is the irregular shape and size of the fragments - which allows for the most subtle variations that makes each cocktail taste both the same and a little bit different each time.

I mean specifically for the context of the cracked ice used for stirring – as I recall, it's just the same ice used for shaking, but broken at the time that it needs to be used. But the thing is, unless I'm mistaken (and I may well be, I'm just a recreational drinker!), is it not the case that Sasha's bars start with large pans of ice that are then broken into blocks (which are then further whittled down for use in shaking or as rocks)? Given this, it would in principle be possible to directly obtain cracked stirring ice without making and keeping around cubes first...

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Who stirs a cocktail for 60 seconds?

Actually, I do. I keep pint glasses in the freezer, and find that 60 seconds over whole KD cubes makes a deliciously cold, yet not overdiluted cocktail.

[...]

I tend to agree that the thermal whatsit (density?) of the tempered glass pint glass makes it the 800 pound gorilla in the equation of chilling cocktails.

In experiments I've done at home with pint glasses chilled over night in a -5 F freezer, I can turn chilled water into icy slush just by pouring it down the side of the glass. I suspect pouring booze into the same glass, results in similar chilling. Basically, the booze is below freezing before you add the ice, cracked or not. Then if I add very cold (-5) ice to the glass, there's very little dilution that will happen for a very long time.

Things are a bit different in a bar, where the ice is not quite that cold, nor are the pint glasses quite that well chilled.

It also makes the converse point, that a warm pint glass, whether that way because of a hot day or because it just came out of the dish sanitizer, is probably the worst possible thing to mix a cocktail in.

I also like the point that, if you want to taste the cocktail, there is a point after which it is too cold. A reason we don't just pre-mix cocktails and keep them in the freezer until a customer orders them.

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Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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For sure a frozen mixing vessel with a high thermal mass can make a huge difference.

I agree that it's possible for a cocktail to be too cold. And I'll go one further and suggest that it depends on the cocktail. I often find that stirred cognac cocktails are better after they've had a chance to warm back up a bit. On the other hand, a Martini can't be too cold for my palate.

More to the point, however, is the fact that your cocktail can always warm up a bit after that bracingly cold first sip. But it's never going to get any colder than it is when the bartender puts the glass in front of you. Better then to err on the side of too cold.

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I had been planning on posting something about this for a while. Because of a different thread, I've been mixing all my drinks in a tin since I don't have room in my freezer for pint glasses. The drinks get really cold (I've also been cracking ice for stirred drinks), however I find that they are almost too cold and I really don't start enjoying them until about halfway through. Even the Martini! I guess I really like tasting the vermouth and gin. Its getting to the point where I don't know if cracking my cubes (faux KD silicon molds) is worth it. It may result in a colder drink, but I may not want that.

To get back on topic, I'm guessing bartenders want cracked ice and their hands are easiest to use absent a machine or pre-cracked ice.

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[...]

More to the point, however, is the fact that your cocktail can always warm up a bit after that bracingly cold first sip.  But it's never going to get any colder than it is when the bartender puts the glass in front of you.  Better then to err on the side of too cold.

I do agree that a too cold Dry Martini is pretty much impossible.

And, yes, a fair point, that the drink can never really get any colder after it is in the glass, even when using frozen glassware.

Even more practically, when interacting with wait staff, that drink will actually probably not get to the guest before it has had some chance to warm up. So perhaps best that you put the drinks up a bit too cold when you are working the service well.

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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As someone that has worked with large format ice that is chipped from large blocks, please trust me that it would be nearly impossible to work with that style of ice without using your hands. At my current employment we use kold draft and I rarely touch the ice with my hands in front of guests because both the volume(as in so many people watching the drinks being built) and the ease at which kold draft cubes can be managed. With large format ice that just isn't an option.

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