The science of ice

Written by on November 15, 2012 in Liquor - No comments

Millions of years ago plants and animals died, they were buried, turned into coal, dug up, and thrown in a fire that spun a turbine to produce the electricity that ran the freezer that created the ice cube which is now melting away in my drink. Ice is decadence.

I’m at Barrel 44 on High Street. They sell whiskey. Tonight I’m drinking a Macallan 12 year old Single Malt Whisky on the rocks per the advice of my friend Josh. I tried not to wince at the $10.50 price tag. I’m usually more of a rum and coke kind of guy. The room temperature Macallan is fighting it out with the ice. The water shedding off the cubes swirls through the caramel brown. I pause as the temperature of the two tries to come to some uneasy equilibrium. I take a sip. The ice has done its job and the liquid is cool at first, then goes down, smooth and warm. My belly glows with delicious. The ice now has a little bit less whiskey in which to try and steal the heat.

Ice comes in all shapes and sizes…the boring cube, the chip, the high tech tube, the weird cube shape where most of the insides are gone, crushed and shaved. That’s a whole lot of ice. I did an intensive survey of several bars in town and found all of these kinds of ice in use all over the place. Obviously there has to be a type of ice that is best for drinks. Most want a cold drink, but they don’t want it watered down by the melt residue.

I needed answers. I met with local Columbus science writer Steve Whitt from COSI to discuss ice.

Steve enlightened me on ice and its heat absorbing properties. He drew a chart with ice at one end, water in the middle and steam on the other and described how blowing steam off a cup of coffee is what cools it down. The process to make the steam pulls heat out of the coffee… you blow it away and the coffee tries to make more, cooling down in the process. He explained surface area and mass, and as an aside, helped me recall what the triple point is.

What stuck with me is surface area.

“More surface area on ice means more water in your drink.” All the chips and tubes and scooped out ice have greater surface area for the amount of ice they contain. So the best ice for drinks is actually the run of the mill cube. Not so large that they smack you in the face and chip your teeth, but manageable, boring cubes of ice.
The cube will cool the drink down as it absorbs the heat of the liquid. In a short amount of time, the liquid will cool down, but the external heat of the room or your hand holding the glass will continue to be absorbed by the ice and cause it to change from a solid to a liquid. A liquid that dilutes the drink. The greater the surface area, the more water. When a bar goes through the trouble of making cubes, they are doing you a favor.
I asked him why most bars make the crappier ice.

“Again, surface area.”

Most bars and restaurants want to make as much ice as possible, as quickly as possible. The best way to do that is by having a machine that has a large area of cold freezing a small amount of water. You get quick ice, but at the cost of ice that will melt faster. So the bars that do make cubes of ice, do so on purpose.

Steve then went into a detailed description of how the last drink you take out of a glass will be the coldest. Several trials later, I think he’s right. My Macallan is gone after fifteen minutes. There’s still ice in the glass.

This is a guest post by Doug Powhida. Doug is an Ohio native, alcohol fan, lead writer at and author of Fake Dispatch on Twitter. Every so often he can be found at Skully’s on Thursday nights, with a beer in one hand and an empty bottle in his back pocket.

creative commons photo credit: equinoxefr

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