Dariush Afshar Haghighi of the Watermark bar and Cool Cats Ice Co in Leeds comes with his guide to the cold stuff.

Ice. According to TikTok, it’s part of the longest-running conspiracy of all time, used to pack out your glass to hide how your bartender is short-pouring you. Yeah, well, I don’t want to crush the internet’s perfectly formed alt-theory, but ice is not depriving you of your favourite drink in good bars. Used properly, it is your drink, every bit as much as the liquid is.

In the intricate orchestra of cocktail balance, every element matters. The impact of dilution is critical – and we’ll come on to this in more detail - and to customise that hackneyed phrase: you drink with your eyes first. The appearance of your drink is everything and at its centre is ice – your choice here says everything about the kind of bar you are. If it’s crystal clear – absent of impurities - the liquid will shine through. A good block of ice, stamped with the bar's logo, is an easy and inexpensive marketing exercise too. Meticulously chiselled custom shapes add that crafted touch to your serve.

All this has a transformative impact on the drinking experience. There is no better way to communicate quality than good ice.

How is clear ice made?

The process for creating clear ice involves purifying water using freezers that are capable of ‘directional freezing’. This freezes water in a controlled direction, pushing all the remaining air and impurities in the water to the surface. The ice blocks are eventually cut down to size using a variety of machines that look like torture devices, usually to the specific size of the bar’s glassware. Custom ice comes at a cost, impacting a bar’s margin, but the value it adds to the customer experience is immeasurable.

Getting the right size and shape of ice for the glass and the liquid is important to your drink. Larger, denser ice cubes melt slower as they have a smaller surface area for the chilled liquid to work on, preventing the rapid dilution of the drink. 

This control of dilution is crucial, especially in cocktails where maintaining the integrity of the flavour profile and strength is paramount. The choice of ice goes beyond mere temperature control – it influences the texture, dilution rate and overall drinking experience. So different drinks demand different types of ice. Instinctively we know that a Negroni, for example, benefits from a large cube that cools the drink without compromising its potency. A Mojito, meanwhile, thrives on crushed or pebble ice, which rapidly chills and dilutes the beverage, contributing to its refreshment. 

A high-abv spirit such as a barrel strength Scotch whisky can benefit greatly from a touch of dilution and a drop down from ambient room temperature. A rough cut of block ice or an ice ball sitting in your dram has a parallel level of luxury. Cubes just don’t cut it anymore.

All shapes and sizes

One of our favourites is the classic large cube, often referred to as a king cube, it has become the flagship shape in bartending and our top selling unit.

The preferred size is taller than a standard 5cm cube, measuring up to 6.5cm. This allows the ice to rise above the liquid and provide a dry area on which to sit edible garnishes or for better visuals of its stamped surface. Its slower melt rate ensures minimal dilution making it ideal for premium spirits and complex cocktails. 

This, consciously or not, gives a sense of calm to the drinking experience. Your cocktail is not rapidly diluting – each sip will be the same as the last. At the bar, our Mooncake cocktail is a perfect example of this. The ice sits above the liquid by about 1cm allowing a dry surface to rest our edible chocolate bark. It also gives a brief moment for the ice to have its moment to be appreciated in the spotlight before the first sip.

Ice balls come with the visual impact of a floating sphere in your spirit or cocktail and can help tell a story. How was it made? Has the bartender crafted this specifically for you? Spheres have wow factor. They are also the champions of slow dilution. They boast the slowest dilution rate of all the ice units due to their small surface area. There are two main methods of producing these as clear as possible. First, you can order these in direct from your ice supplier if they have the capability. These are cut directly from slabs of ice in production. Alternatively, you can produce these yourself using an ice press. This is a lot slower but, if done in front of the guest, can add a further touch of theatre to the serve. 

The presses are made from a highly conductive metal that allows fast transfer of heat energy from the ice to the press. The weight of the press slowly transforms any rough chunk of ice into anything you desire, spheres, columns, diamonds, tennis balls etc. Due to the slow nature of the press, and the fact that it will cool down very quickly after a couple of uses, this method of producing custom shapes is better prepped ahead of service. At the Watermark we favour the small spheres that stack up in a Collins glass to produce a ‘Highball’ (see what we did there?). Our diamond press is not featured on the menu but when we are doing something a little bespoke for a guest it is hard not to bring this feature out for a bit of wonderment.

Tall ice spears have the same properties as the king cube. Your cocktail will shine through, the temperature will remain more constant, and, if the drink is carbonated, it won’t kill the gas. Particulates can affect the bubbles so this pure, clear ice ensures your crisp cocktail stays as close to the form of its creation at the bar top. With a flat surface piercing through the liquid, it also provides you with a much more consistent platform to rest garnishes on, drill holes for sprigs or stamp a logo. But of course, it is the mastery of dilution that tall ice spears bring, allowing you to create complex Highballs that remain at the right concentration until the last drop. Long drinks have traditionally had a short window after creation – that window is wider with the right ice.

While you can have your ice made to measure, for visual impact it’s hard to beat the large ice block on display from which chunks are cut off to order and personally shaped for each drink. The theatre of the craft creates a link between the bartender, the drink and the guest. That the piece of ice is bespoke, to order, creates a sense of personalisation and personality – it’s craftsmanship versus uniform serves. Some drinks suit this rough-shorn look, it just depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

And that needs to be clear from the outset. You need to think through your ice choice – the shape and size, its cost and its supply – from the start. As much as the liquid, the garnish and the glass, the ice is your drink.