Like most of the smartphone-holding planet, my attention span these days lasts about as long as a pop rock on the tongue. Cronuts! The president has rage-tweeted! 50 Things You Never Needed to Know About Fidget Spinners! Otters holding hands! A Kardashian has emerged from her space carapace and put makeup onto her eyelid!
It’s no surprise, in this impulse-driven world, that cocktails, too, have had to seek ways to compete for our attention. Many of these grabbers are visual — drinks with elaborate garnishes that make for Instagram catnip, luring customers to bars to become the 10,000th to snap a shot of the cocktail that smokes, changes color or slaps your date when he suggests you order the salad.
Not all attention-grabbers are purely for the eyes, though, and among my favorites are drinks that keep your attention once you’ve started sipping, through flavors that evolve from your first sip to your last.
One of the best and easiest ways to do this is by getting funky with ice. Ice is a critical component of most drinks, the water for dilution, frozen to provide chill. But water isn’t the only substance that can freeze and gradually re-liquefy. By incorporating other ingredients into your ice cubes, you can create cocktails that evolve over the time they’re being consumed, warding off chances for palate fatigue.
Sometimes they can be real showstoppers. That was the intent when Allen Lancaster, head bartender at the Bar at the Spectator Hotel in Charleston, S.C., came up with the Eclipsed by None. When the total solar eclipse hit in 2017, Charleston was close to the line of totality, and hundreds of thousands of people were descending upon the city to watch. Lancaster wanted a next-level drink and conjured one with a base that included mezcal, yellow chartreuse and pineapple. He served it with an ice sphere that included pomegranate juice, blackberry liqueur and puree, a locally made amaro, ancho chile liqueur and a pinch of cayenne. With its dark ice orb suspended in the golden base, the drink echoed the eclipse visually and on the palate, Lancaster says, starting out “with bright, light, vibrant flavors . . . and then as the cube itself melted, you got the darker berry flavors coming in, and then it finished off with a little bit of kick of the cayenne pepper.”
Between the base and the ice, Lancaster’s baby had more than 10 ingredients. But this technique doesn’t have to be baroque. One of my favorite applications was a delicious drink that Jeff Faile, now beverage director at Pineapple and Pearls, created at a previous gig: By serving Campari ice in whiskey and sweet vermouth, he created a drink that gradually changed from a Manhattan into a Boulevardier.
And on the first menu of Dram & Grain in Adams Morgan, the bar team worked up the Maiden Voyage, in which ice made of Bénédictine, vermouth and bitters gradually melted into a cognac-and-rye Sazerac, a trick that turned the drink into a Vieux Carré, thus allowing two classic New Orleans drinks to inhabit a single glass.
Trevor Frye, who was on the Dram & Grain team before running the now-closed Five to One on U Street, says dialing in the spec for the drink took time. And that’s true of these drinks generally: You will usually want some water in whatever cube you make to help it freeze, but “if you have too much water content, it’s just going to freeze hard and the flavors aren’t going to come out,” Frye says. “And if you have too little, it’s just going to be like a slushy.”
At McClellan’s Retreat in Dupont Circle, general manager Brian Nixon says they’ve used lots of ice flavors (and put them into shaped molds, too — hearts, Christmas trees, gingerbread people). On the menu now is the Pepperbox, a mezcal- and coffee-liqueur-based drink that uses habanero-pepper ice to make for a gradual, building heat. Muddling chile peppers directly into a drink and even using them in syrups can produce an overpowering heat, Nixon says, but the ice makes for a more subtle effect. Not that the bar doesn’t get people who want more heat: “Some people want to get it super-spicy, so we give them a stirrer stick so they can speed up the melt.”
If you’re playing with ice at home, remember that most cocktails really need a bit of true dilution, and water will also help your other ingredients freeze. Incorporating salt, sugar and especially alcohol into water will slow the freeze rate and impact the texture of your ice. (Think about the difference in texture between pure ice and a Popsicle.)
Generally, you want to keep any pure alcohol in the liquid at 20 percent or less (and if you have a freezer that allows you to drop the temperature below zero for a few days while you’re playing your tricks, that can be useful, too). Ice made of fruit juice or tea, or incorporating spices or low-ABV liqueurs, can make for great results. I was pretty happy with a peach-tea/lemon/honey ice cube sunk into a good bourbon, and the ginger-juice/lime/cassis cube I dropped into a highball made with reposado tequila and ginger ale was delicious. A long spear of frozen elderflower syrup adds a lovely note to a G&T.
Consider the way people are likely to consume the drink: How long will it take? Will the ingredients in the melting cube becoming overpowering in a long-sipping drink? Or worse, will people finish the drink before the impact of the ice is really tasted at all?
My favorite experiment came from messing around with the dirty martini, a drink I’ve never really loved. I’ve eyeballed enough bar olives over the years, moldering in their garnish trays in easy sneeze range of us barflies, to be a little put off. A friend of mine likes extra-dirty vodka martinis, served with three blue-cheese-stuffed olives, and there’s something about the muddy swamp of that drink — those skewered olives trailing the grease slicks from their fatty, funky innards — that has always given me a shiver.
But I love Castelvetrano olives, those Sicilian fruits that shine a pure, spring green, and the buttery tang of their flesh. In this ice experiment, the garnish becomes the drink: You freeze a Castelvetrano olive in a liquid composed of olive juice, dry vermouth and a splash of orange juice. It starts out as a martini that old vermouth-hater Winston Churchill would have loved — a cold glass of gin. This makes it critical to start with a gin you really like. I tested a couple of London drys, and they worked well. But I also tried out Spain’s lovely Gin Mare, which includes olives and several savory herbs in its botanical lineup, and that version really sang. A more citrus-forward gin such as Tanqueray No. Ten would do well, too. As you sip and swirl your drink, the cube melts, adding its flavors (and a pale, pistachio-green opacity) to the cocktail.
Playing with ice is a fun technique this time of summer, when we’re all still in danger of melting. You can even riff on that old joke people tell about mercurial weather: Don’t like the drink? Wait five minutes.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
You can make these cubes in a traditional ice cube tray, but the recipe is best suited to the kind of silicon mold that make 15 small, square ice cubes — it’s better for both aesthetic and culinary reasons (each divot perfectly holds an olive plus the right amount of liquid).
When placing the olives into the ice molds, you can also include a thin strip of orange or lemon zest; place it so it encircles the olive.
MAKE AHEAD: The ice cubes need to be made and frozen at least a day ahead of when you plan to serve the drinks; the cubes will last up to 2 weeks in the freezer. Note that the alcohol and salt in this mixture make it slower to freeze than standard water. If you have a refrigerator that allows you to drop the temperature in the freezer to a few degrees below zero, doing so is helpful.
From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.
For the olive ice cubes
15 to 20 whole Castelvetrano olives (one for each space in your ice cube mold), plus ½ cup pitted, chopped Castelvetrano olives, plus ¾ cup olive brine
¾ cup fresh orange juice
¾ cup dry vermouth
½ cup water
2 ounces gin or vodka
For the ice cubes: Place 1 whole olive into each divot or well of your ice cube mold.
Combine the chopped olives, brine, orange juice, vermouth and water in a blender; blend on the highest speed, for 30 to 45 seconds.
Use two fine-mesh strainers, one nested inside the other, to double-strain the liquid, pressing gently on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. The yield is about 2 cups.
Pour the liquid over each olive in the ice cube mold; each well should be not quite full. Freeze overnight.
For the drink: An hour or two before you want to serve the drink, place your bottle of gin or vodka in the freezer to get it nice and cold.
Ten minutes before serving, place your cocktail (martini) glass in the freezer. Then, remove the bottle of gin or vodka and the glass from the freezer. Fill a mixing glass with regular ice, then add the chilled liquor and stir briefly; you just want a tiny bit of dilution. Add an olive ice cube to the glass, then strain the gin or vodka gently over the cube and serve.
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