The woman who answered the phone at Talbert’s Ice in Bethesda had clear instructions when I explained that I needed dry ice to make Halloween punch.
“Don’t,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “I know what I’m doing.” (I’ve heard that “Hey, watch this!” is the top phrase to precede actions that win someone a Darwin Award. “I know what I’m doing” might be a contender for second place.)
Her young male colleague was equally firm when I got there with my cooler. “I’m putting it in drinks,” I explained.
“No you are not,” he said.
I tried to calm him, but his eyes kept rolling skeptically, like a panicked horse in front of a fence it doesn’t want to jump.
Why? I’ve seen plenty of bartenders make use of dry ice: carbon dioxide in its solid, extremely cold form. Dry ice changes directly from solid to gas, and when put in drinks, it creates a bubbling effect and a thick fog. I’ve seen it in bowls of punch, sending out mysterious tendrils of mist. I’ve seen it individual drinks, including Jo-Jo Valenzuela’s Rizal, a bubbling concoction of gin, lime and “guavamansi” (guava and kalamansi lime) soda that won Washington’s annual rickey competition this summer.
It’s a great piece of theater: The sinuous movement of the visible gas is hypnotic, the cold correlation to staring into a fire. When better to use such a prop than Halloween?
Why were people acting like I was making a drink out of Happy Fun Ball? (Google it, millennials.)
I asked him if customers ever got into trouble with the stuff.
“Not that I know of,” he said, loading up my ice. “But I have had people ask stupid questions. Like, ‘Can I eat it?’ One guy wanted to know if he could get high off it.”
Which brings us to Dry Ice Cocktail Rule No. 1: Don’t serve one to that guy.
I’d been aiming for scary-Halloween-cool (a witches’ cauldron; a black fernet concoction with fake frogs that I could call the Dagobah Swamp). A recent story in the Guardian gave me pause. It revisited a case in England in 2012 in which a teenager was served a cocktail with liquid nitrogen in it. Like dry ice, liquid nitrogen is extremely cold and creates bubbling fog effects in a drink; and, like dry ice, it should not be consumed. The customer who was served that cocktail apparently drank it while the nitrogen was still bubbling in the drink; she ended up having her stomach removed. The bar that served the drink was recently fined 100,000 pounds, about $154,000.
Stomach removal, enormous fines — no longer in the scary-Halloween-cool category but the scary-nope category.
But dry ice is less cold and easier to handle than liquid nitrogen, and it can be used safely with relative ease. Which brings us to Dry Ice Cocktail Rules No. 2 & 3: Use food-grade dry ice, and use gloves or tongs to handle it.
Valenzuela, beverage director at Brine and vice president of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild, says his first experience with dry ice was when he was a kid in the Philippines. “Some of the ice cream vendors pushed their carts around the street; they used it for cooling, and we used to ask for a piece. And of course I was told, ‘Don’t touch it with your bare hands,’ and I was a kid, so of course I did it anyway, and it got stuck to my hand. We had water nearby so we just washed it off, but my hand was sore for a good couple of days.”
It didn’t scare him off; he still puts it in drinks. For his Rizal, he sank a straw into the drink to make sure no one sipping it accidentally broke Dry Ice Cocktail Rule No. 4: For the love of Pete (whoever Pete is), don’t swallow the ice.
In a punch, you can keep the ice confined to the big bowl and avoid the issue if you like: Just serve ladlesful that are not bubbling. If you’re feeling daring and want to put a chunk in a single drink, be more careful.
Julien-Pierre Bourgon, formerly of PX and TNT Bar and now bar manager at Masseria, used dry ice on occasion at TNT. When he put it in an individual cocktail, “I’d let people know, ‘If you swallow that thing, it could kill you.’ ”
It probably wouldn’t, but it would get their attention, which was the point: An imbiber who’s paying attention is the kind of imbiber who can handle a dry-iced drink. If you’re going to put dry ice in an individual drink, Bourgon recommends placing some regular large cubes of ice on top of it; the regular ice will help keep it in place.
I saw the hazard: Dry ice sinks to the bottom of liquids, but while testing, I watched as one piece got smaller and smaller — then floated to the surface as a tiny shard, thin as a needle. It disappeared quickly, but if I’d sipped that drink right then, I could have gotten a tongue burn.
It’s a question of context, Bourgon says: He has a friend and former TNT Bar colleague who now works at a bar on U Street, and his friend says he’d never do dry ice there. “U Street on a Friday night, crazy drunken people, someone would do something stupid — take it out of the drink, put it down someone’s back.”
Dry Ice Cocktail Rule No. 5: Don’t put it down someone’s back.
The Bloody Good Halloween Punch recipe here is a drink for adults whose palates have matured but who still love Halloween. It’s a tart, blood-red collision of strawberries and Campari that you can sweeten to taste. (A note to parents: Kids, obviously, will love the dry ice visual. You could easily use it in a cider or a booze-free Halloween punch. And many of your kids are probably more responsible than Friday night drunks on U Street. Still, we don’t need to stipulate that this is not something kids should mess around with without a sober, responsible adult supervising, right? Good.)
You won’t need more than a few pounds of dry ice (preferably in large chunks) to keep a punch bowl going for a few hours. I ended up with a lot of leftover ice, enough to give me time to explore such questions as: What happens if you put dry ice in your coffee? How will the dog react to seeing dry ice in her water bowl? What happens if you put dry ice in the toilet?
Dry Ice Cocktail Rule No. 6: Don’t have too much left over. There, madness lies.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears regularly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
Bloody Good Halloween Punch
Too many boozy Halloween punches get the blood-red color right but taste like something served in a frat house. This deep red concoction is a nice treat, allowing you to play with the ghoulish theme of the holiday (if you want to — it’ll taste just as good any time of year) while serving adults something they won’t be embarrassed to drink. If you want creepy ice cube garnishes, remember to freeze those the night before.
Dry ice is optional but adds drama to the presentation; you’d need 1 to 2 pounds for this recipe. When you work with it, use extreme caution. Make sure none of the ice itself is consumed. Dry ice will sink to the bottom of the bowl of punch and change directly into gas, creating a “bubbling cauldron” effect.
You can ladle servings of this punch safely into cups, but you should leave anything still bubbling in the bowl. In rare instances — typically when the ice pieces have become very thin and small from the sublimation process — they become light enough to float. Keep an eye on what you’re serving to make sure no small shards end up in your guests’ cups. Whoever is in charge of managing the dry ice should remain stone-cold sober.
MAKE AHEAD: The strained strawberry mixture can be made and refrigerated in an airtight container up to 1 day in advance.
From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.
4 cups frozen strawberries, defrosted
2 cups water
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from 4 or 5 lemons)
2 cups dry vermouth
2 cups gin or vodka
3/4 cup triple sec
1/2 cup Campari
3/4 cup simple syrup, or more as needed (see NOTE)
4 dashes Angostura bitters
Red food coloring (for deeper color; optional)
Ice cubes with Halloween garnishes, such as plastic spiders/eyeballs/vampire fangs frozen inside (optional)
Working in batches as needed, puree the strawberries in a blender to the consistency of a smoothie. Add the water (to the blender, if you can; if not, combine the water with the puree to a separate bowl) and stir or whir briefly to blend. If you don’t want the seeds, strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer, using a flexbile spatula to help push it through into a punch bowl underneath. Otherwise, you can mix the pureed/unstrained strawberries and water directly in the punch bowl.
Add the lemon juice, dry vermouth, gin or vodka, triple sec, Campari, simple syrup, bitters and several drops of the food coloring, if desired; whisk together until well blended.
Add the ice cubes, if using. (If you’re not using dry ice, you’ll need some form of ice to keep the punch chilled.) If you are using dry ice, you’ll want to add it right before the punch is to be served so that your guests will get the full visual effect. Again, make sure none of the ice itself is consumed.
NOTE: To make the simple syrup, combine 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a low boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Transfer the syrup to a heatproof container; cool completely before using.
Nutrition | Per serving: 120 calories, 0 g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar
Recipe tested by M. Carrie Allan; e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org