In a short glass, gently muddle mint leaves with simple syrup. Fill the glass with crushed ice and add brandy and Benedictine. Stir, add a straw, and garnish with a mint sprig
~ Adapted from "How's Your Drink" by Eric Felten
Let's talk about ice. You'll need some for the recipe above, so here we go...
Everyone's talking about ice these days. Granted, a lot of people are discussing it right now because they're chipping it off their cars or scraping it off the sidewalks, but I'm talking about the ice we use in our drinks- Those glorious hunks of really cold water that keep our cocktails the right temperature and add that necessary li'l bit of water to balance everything out.
If you've browsed a food magazine, cocktail blog or attended a drink-making seminar sometime in the last year or two, you will no doubt have seen ice mentioned. Specifically, how to make really good ice. Whether it's crushed, cracked, cubed, shaved, or carved into spheres or spears, there is somebody out there who has devised a method to create the best example of each, and wants you to use it.
There's a good reason for all this fetishizing of ice- it's absolutely crucial to making a good drink. Cocktail nerds can really get wound up about the quality of their ice, and much like diamonds, ice is often judged by its shape, clarity, hardness and so forth. Many high-end bars go to obsessive lengths to provide outstanding ice, and would rather not serve a drink at all rather than use ice that they deem substandard.
For those of us who are trying our best to make top-notch drinks at home, we've got a lot of great options, and the good news is that many are inexpensive and require nothing more than the freezer that's already part of your fridge. Another incentive to make your own ice is that the freezers in most home refrigerators chill ice to a lower temperature than the commercially-made ice you buy by the bag at the grocery store or gas station. Colder ice equals slower melting, which equals a less watery drink. It's science!
So if you want nice, solid ice cubes that are actually cubes and not some other indeterminate shape, there are silicone trays that give great results. Since the trays are flexible, removing the cubes is easy and won't cause you to damage the ice by hammering on the back or sides like you often need to with rigid trays. I like the ones made by Tovolo, and have four of them in my freezer at all times. Once you start using those perfect little rock-hard blocks, you'll find it hard to go back.
Now that you have nice big chunks of ice, you'll need smaller ones. There's a bunch of ways to take large pieces of ice and make them into smaller pieces of ice, but most bartenders and home mixers prefer either the "wrap-and-smash" method or some type of mechanical means. I know a lot of people like to wrap their ice in a towel or cloth bag and bash the daylights out of it with a wooden mallet, muddler, rolling pin, etc., but I like using a purpose-built manual ice crusher.
New ones are still being made and can be found in high-end kitchen supply stores, but they can go for as much as fifty dollars. I recommend browsing online auction sites or local flea markets and thrift stores for older models. They can usually be found for 5 or 10 bucks and are a steal at that price. Additionally, they're well-built, durable, and easy to use and clean. You'll be cranking out heaps of consistently-sized crushed ice in nothing flat.
Lastly, ice spheres are all the rage right now. They are ideal for chilling a glass of straight spirits, but work well in many other drinks. The whole idea behind the sphere is that its large size (approximately that of a billiard ball) and minimal surface area (There's that science again!) combine to create a hunk of ice having the desirable properties of low melt with high chill. Plus, they look really neat. Of course, the million-dollar question is: How do you make them?
If you like doing things that are labor-intensive and require a lot of concentration, you can carve your own spheres by hand like those talented but insanely obsessive practitioners of Japanese-style bartending. However, I like the simplicity and ease-of-use afforded by two-piece plastic molds. I use the ones sold by the Museum of Modern Art online store, and they work great (My only minor complaint with them was the small size of the holes used for filling them...but this was easily remedied by boring out the holes with a large drill bit. It's an easy modification that just takes a few seconds). Another hint is to use a couple of rubber bands to hold the two halves together- This will ensure that they remain in place and won't allow the water to shift around during the freezing process.
This is just a small sample of the ways you can play with frozen H2O, but it's a good start and will cover a lot of drink preparations. So make sure your freezer's cold, check that your water's clean , and make some decent ice. Your booze deserves it!
~ Dr. Bamboo