Spherical ice has been de rigueur for the last year or so, although not readily adopted by home bartenders. So what’s all the fuss about? Is it worth the effort? Does it affect the drink? Consumatorium lab personnel donned our lab coats to bring our readers the low down on the great cube vs sphere debate.
In terms of ice, spheres (also referred to as balls or orbs) are an effective shape. When used in a cocktail, ice absorbs heat from the liquid in the cocktail and the air on the surface of the liquid as the ice floats. Absorbing heat, of course, causes the ice to melt. The more surface area the ice has, the more heat it can absorb. Spheres are very efficient in this way. They have the lowest surface area per volume of any 3-dimensional object (the math is here for all you geeks). So, the bottom line is that ice spheres melt more slowly than cubes or crescents and thus can keep your drink cold longer while not diluting it as much along the way.
The mixologist needs to keep in mind that melting ice is part of any drink recipe. In a cocktail, ice isn’t only about cooling the drink, but it is actually intended to dilute it a bit as well. While the difference isn’t huge, you should keep in mind that the drink will be less diluted if you use an ice sphere. Adding water to the drink through melting is less important when drinking a spirit straight up. If you are serving a single malt scotch on the rocks, you are using the ice to chill the drink rather than dilute it. That’s why cold stones are often used to chill drinks that are served straight up.
Of course, if the people you’re serving are lushes who quickly toss back every cocktail you make for them then the difference in the amount of dilution is negligible (further research on the practical aspects of this is ongoing in the labs – we’ll report back when the results are in and we sober up). In the end, you might want to consider using spheres more because they look cool in your Old Fashioned glass than because of the fact that they keep the drink cold with less dilution.
Spherical ice is a bit more difficult to make than the cubed form, but there are several devices to aid in the process. The easiest version is the ice ball mold. It makes spheres that are larger than regular ice cubes without taking up too much room in your freezer. Because they are a reasonable size, they freeze relatively quickly. The ice isn’t clear, but the spheres do fit nicely into almost any glass. As Dave points out, these spheres sometimes split as they warm, taking away from the unique affect. Perhaps because of the shape of the mold.
If it’s clear ice you’re looking for and, really, who doesn’t want the cool factor of completely clear ice? Then things get a bit more complicated. You need to have a mold that will allow air and impurities to escape above and below the sphere as it freezes. You can search the web for home made versions of such a gizmo, or you can pick one up from Wintersmiths (no affiliation) or similar.
This bad boy only makes one sphere at a time and, yes, it’s completely clear (see the sphere on the left in the first picture). The sphere is on the larger size, so don’t expect it to fit into your smaller glasses. It also takes about 24 hours to freeze a single sphere. Seriously low throughput. You need to be doing a lot of up-front planning for a party. But hey, the spheres are clear.
Finally, you can buy or build your own ice ball shaper. The shaper works on the principle that metal has a much lower heat capacity than water. Therefore, the ice absorbs the heat from the metal fairly quickly, melting the ice into the form in the metal.
By machining a hemisphere into each side of the mold and placing a big chunk of ice between the halves, gravity and thermal mass do their job to shape a nice sphere of frozen water.
Still confused? Check out his video of the ice shaper in operation. This one hand built with the help of a few machine tools by my good friend, Ben Einstein (thanks, Ben).
The shaper creates an ice sphere the size and shape of the mold. In this case, a pretty large sphere that you need at least a double Old Fashioned glass to handle so you can leave room for your cocktail (see the center ice sphere in the first photo). The sphere will be clear as long as the large chunk of ice that was placed in the shaper was clear. Like the clear ice sphere maker, above, this is not a high throughput device. The aluminum transfers its heat to the sphere and is left cold itself. You need to bathe the shaper in hot water for a few minutes in order to restore the heat that it will transfer to the next sphere. Again, parties require some up front planning.
In the end, our lab results show that while spherical ice cubes are a great garnish to a cocktail, they probably don’t add much additional value. Sure, if you make 10 oz drinks that people linger over for an hour or you’re serving spirits straight up, they certainly have their functional place, but otherwise they just add to the presentation. If you’re up to it, keep a few in the freezer for those special occasions. They’ll always bring a smile to the people you’re making drinks for.