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No Ice? Stick to the Beer

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There's something magic about a tall G&T to cool off a summer's day in the garden, or a Mojito to help you retire from the holiday sun. Longer drinks like these and other hi-balls (your spirit and mixer combinations such as the noted G&T, Whisky and Soda, Tequila and Ginger Ale and many other cooling wonders) give you time to relax and let you sink into the drink.

They're still great in the cooler months as a pick-me-up; They lift you up like a glass of wine can't, and give you a blast of refreshment. Even the fizz of the bubbles is perfect. It's with this in mind that the disappointment comes when you're served a limp, flat impostor. Many times a simple serve such as these comes to you lifeless, unbalanced and lacking any of the restorative powers it so often has.

The real disappointment is that it's often just one simple step that's overlooked, and that's the ice. You might've seen many bars putting a big focus on their ice- triple frozen, pride of place illuminated blocks glistening like glass, ice blocks cut into diamonds... the bar world has gone ice mad.

Now this might seem melodramatic- I work with cocktails so this pseudo over-analysis may just be me, but how often do you have a drink in the house and wonder why it doesn't live up to the ones you order in a bar or restaurant? You have your favourite spirit at home, you have good quality, fresh ingredients so what's the downfall? Friends have come to me and wanted to learn some basic cocktail techniques to apply to some drinks at home and my first point has always been to talk about ice.

Cocktails are actually very simple to do at home- and you can easily adapt techniques and equipment (I've employed jam jar shakers on many occasions). The key thing to understand is your own tastes, and then a sense of balance. Now, many people are fine balancing flavours- it's exactly the same as when they're cooking, but what's often overlooked in a cocktail is dilution as part of this. Professional chefs are guilty of this when they make cocktails too. A key part of your drink is water (and the temperature)- it stops your drink being too boozy, and opens out the flavours. An old fashioned with too much, but similarly, too little dilution is out of whack- it lacks its true magic. Or it'll knock you out. Big volumes of big ice makes this job easy- slow, controllable dilution leading to the perfect balance of the strength of the booze, and the opening of its flavours. Try it by tasting your favourite spirit neat, then add a drop of water and see how the aromas jump out.

Of course, even the limp hi-ball you're been served has a few pieces of ice floating around, but this gives you no time to enjoy the drink. By the time the drink is cooled, it's also overly watered down. The key is to pack your glass as full of ice as you can. It's a simple rule, but it'll be the real difference between the crisp eye-opener it should be, and the sad lifeless version that haunts many a home. The simple truth is, the more ice you pack in, the quicker the drink cools down to that ideal temperature, and therefore the slower it dilutes.

A good tip is to use ice trays too- the larger the better. You'll need lots too if you're making drinks for friends so ditch the store bought bagged ice and freeze up a drawer full (I don't know what else you need in your freezer other than ice, peas and ice cream anyway). Ask any bartender and they'll wax lyrical (too much actually) about their ice program. There are several bars around the country using a variety of different types of ice for different drinks and applying as much consideration to their ice as their other ingredients. Now, I have a hunch a dedicated ice program is unnecessary in your house, but it'll give you an idea of how important it is.

With this in mind, don't feel the bartender is cheating you when they pack your glass full of ice. This really is the best way to get a balanced drink and one that has the cooling magic it needs to have. So much so that'd I'd forgo the drink lacking ice in favour of a glass of wine or the titular beer. It sounds extreme, but the ice really does make the drink.

It's a very simple starting point but think about storing ice like preheating your oven. When I first started cooking I didn't really see the point, but once I learnt the difference it would make, I wouldn't cook without doing so. My bread has never been the same since, hopefully our humble hi-balls will follow suit.

One to try for Autumn- even for those who aren't whisky fans:

"Buck Up"

Fill a slim Highball glass with ice to the top, add a dash of Angostura bitters (it binds all the ingredients together- like cocktail seasoning), then add:

A decent slug of whisky ~40ml
A splash of Cointreau or triple sec ~10ml
Fill with more ice (which'll also help hold the fizz), then top with some ginger ale.
Add a slice of lemon or orange, and enjoy!

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