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Get to know the wide cold world of ice types

Hanson O'Haver
April 13, 2018

Like groundhogs, we finally have emerged from the lingering winter. It is time to celebrate with the best type of drink: cold. Since it’s no longer freezing, we cannot reach sufficiently low temperatures simply by leaving our beverages outside for a while. We could turn to the refrigerator but that would take forever, and besides, we want our drinks to stay cold. What we need is ice.

But we mustn’t crack that plastic tray quite yet. Consider: What do you want to drink? Just as you wouldn’t sport tennis whites at a funeral or a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, there is a proper time and place for every type of ice. The glory of a hand-carved 1:12 scale ice replica of Michelangelo’s David would be diminished inside a Super Big Gulp Cup, and shaved iced will overly dilute an aged cognac. If you really want to have the best possible drink, you will need the appropriate form of ice. Read on to learn your options.

Ice cube tray ice

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An old classic. You fill a slotted plastic (or silicone, or whatever) tray up with water, wait a few hours, and brrr! You’ve got cold cubes—or more likely rectangles—of water. The real downside to these is that they’re ugly. Because ice in trays freezes from top to bottom, and because pure water freezes quicker, air bubbles and minerals collect in the middle of cubes, giving them a cloudy appearance. (If you have 30 minutes and $1.99, you can watch “How to Make an Ice Cube,” a fascinating episode of Going Deep with David Rees that explores this subject in appropriate depth.)

Ice machine ice

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If you’ve ever wondered how an ice maker (like the one in your parents’ fridge) works, it’s basically just a regular ice cube tray but with machines involved.

Crushed ice

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Crushed ice is just ground up pieces of larger ice. That’s it.

Bagged ice

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I’ve gotta clean up around the house before people get here so if you’re headed down to the 7-11, do you mind picking up a few bags of ice? You can find them in any number of shapes—nugget, tube, square—and there are lots of local ice companies with neat names like Chilly Willy & Cool Carls Ice Service or American Party Ice, Inc. But, as the man on the phone at United City Ice Cube Company told me, many of these companies are just middle men who don’t make their own ice but instead buy and deliver products from Big Ice companies like Redy Ice and Arctic Glacier.

Gourmet ice

The good stuff! Gourmet ice—sometimes called “top hat”—is clear and pure. This is achieved by using freezing purified water from the inside out. Cold water is pumped over the ice as it freezes, melting away any imperfections. Not only does it look nice, it also is harder than regular ice, so it melts slower, making it a good choice when you’re not looking to water down a fine liquor. If you’re willing to pay for it, you can get a gourmet ice machine for your house. If not, you can make your own clear ice in a cooler.

Crescent ice

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Crescent ice is a type of gourmet ice that has a few advantages over its square brothers. It looks neat, reduces splash, and its shape allows the bartender to fit more in a glass.

Dry ice
Dry ice is not ice at all and we will not be discussing it any further.

Nugget ice

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When you’re served a drink that seems to have crushed ice, this is what you’re really getting. It's made from compacted pieces of flake ice, which is why it's soft, chewy, and airy. One thing to note: Different ice cube makers give shapes different names. So while Scotsman and Manitowoc both call crushed ice "nugget," Ice-O-Matic calls it the "pearl," and Hoshizaki goes with "cubelet,” and others use “pellet,” “Sonic (after the restaurant that popularized it),” and “pebble.”

Tube ice

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Aka “bullet ice,” this is one of the most common types of commercial ice. The hollow center allows any impurities and air bubbles to escape, and added surface area makes for a fast freezing time.

Plate ice
Plate ice, sometimes called scale ice, is made up of uneven chips of a broken down block of ice. Because of its irregular appearance, this is less common in drinks and mostly used for things like keeping fresh fish cold.

Flake ice

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Flake ice can mean a lot of things, but it’s the industry term that’s most commonly used for the snowy powder used in shaved or Hawaiian ice. While it works in sno cones, it’s not good for drinking, as it melts too fast.

Full cubes

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Cubes—sometimes called dice—are a fancier option popular at cocktail bars. They melt slowly and have sort of a retro vibe. Interestingly, most companies cube offerings are actually closer to 1" x 1" x 1.25". Only Kold Draft's fold cubes measure an exact 1.25" all around.

Half cubes
Like cubes, but in half. These freeze faster than full-sized, plus you can fit more in a glass.

Sculpture ice
Sculptures are carved out of large chunks of ice, either cut from frozen bodies of water or made artificially. To create clear blocks, a machine freezes water from the bottom up, while also pumping water across the top, thus allowing the oxygen to escape.

Hand cut cubes and spheres

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Hand-cut ice—aka artisanal ice, usually found in cubes or spheres—is carved from larger blocks of clear ice, usually created in a method similar to sculpture ice. Chunks are then chopped off and polished (usually on a piece metal) until a perfect sheen is achieved. Why? Ostensibly they keep drinks cold and dilution to an absolute minimum, but more likely it's because they look nice. As one bartender at the W Hotel told NPR in 2014, "If you're gonna get a drink that's $15, it better have the best ice.”

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