Question: How do you make a Japanese ice ball?
Don't you just hate how your ice doesn't last as long as your drink? By the end of a Scotch on the rocks, a Jack and Coke, or a Gin and Tonic we often taste more water than the drink. It can be disappointing to the point where those last few sips get tossed and a fresh round is ordered. Well, allow me to introduce you to the ice ball.
Since I was introduced to this wonderful chunk of sculpted ice it has been hard to go back to any rocks drink that doesn't have it. Why? The simple fact is that it lasts longer than smaller cubed ice and my drinks are not watered down at the end.
Ice melt is often one of the reasons that your "homemade" drinks do not taste as fresh as bar drinks. The ice served in bars is designed to fill the glass, utilizing its maximum capacity, which in turn keeps everything cooler longer and the ice from melting too soon. The basic design of ice from classic cube trays does not allow for this efficient use of a glass' shape. However, the ice ball thwarts this melting by giving you one large clump that cools itself and slows the melt.
Ice balls are perfect when drinking straight liquor on the rocks and lowball mixed drinks like the Black Russian. I also enjoy using ice balls in iced coffee and milk or cream drinks that you want to keep cold and free of excess water.
There is one hazard to ice balls, however. If you tip the glass too quickly when you take a drink, the ball can run down the side of the glass and hit your teeth. I've had this happen on only a few occasions and it wasn't damaging.
Most ice balls are the size of a handball or racquetball and they fit into most highball and lowball glasses. Depending on the shape of your glass, they may not fit and I have yet to find a collins glass that will work. The key to using an ice ball is to have a glass with a wide rim; those that taper inward at the rim will not work and your ball will just sit on top.
How do you make an ice ball?
There are three ways to create an ice ball.
Carving: Commonly used in Japan, carving ice balls is a craft that involves a person with an ice pick carving the form of a ball from a solid brick of ice. You can see the technique in action in this YouTube video. It is a skill that takes a lot of patience to master and it is a lot of work. Imagine being a barman with that job all night!
Ice Ball Molds: The other option, which is far easier and adept to the home bartender, is to get an ice ball mold. These can be quite difficult to find but they're out there and you have basically two options at this moment: an aluminum mold and a plastic mold.
The aluminum molds will actually break down a large piece of ice to form the ball. The force of the heated mold presses the ice block into the ball mold automatically and creates a perfectly rounded piece of ice in minutes. These are widely available and come in different shapes as well. The drawback with these molds is that they are expensive. Here is one store that sells a variety.
The plastic molds are far more economical and sell for around $30. The one that I initially used was the double ice ball mold and these work great.
Since then, I as introduced to the Whiskey Rounders Ice Ball Maker. This mold makes six ice balls at one time. The top of the molds are individual and the ice can be removed as needed. These are also easier to fill because you can pour directly into the assembled mold. This is now my preferred ice ball mold.
Here are some tricks for using it to make the perfect ice ball using this mold.
How to make an ice ball with the double plastic mold:
- Separate the two pieces of the mold.
- Fill the bottom mold to the top of the rim of the mold (not just the sphere shape) with distilled water (please don't use tap).
- Place the top mold over the bottom and push it down. You will want to do this over the sink as water will come out of the two air holes on the top. This is necessary because the water displaced from the bottom tray will fill the top part of the sphere and some will be "left over" and have to come out of the mold.
- Set your ice ball mold on a level surface in your freezer. "Level" is important because if the mold is tilted, water will leak out and you will not have a full ball once it is frozen.
- Allow the mold to set undisturbed (again, tilting unfrozen water factor) for 3-5 hours, or until frozen, depending on how cold your freezer is. I found that this time is about twice as long as a standard ice cube tray and if you can go a little longer, it's better because you want to ensure it is fully frozen.
- Once completely frozen you can separate the two parts of the tray. The ice balls may stick to the mold so you will want to be careful when attempting to remove the ice balls. If they do get stuck, run some cold water over the mold and it should release (hot water will begin the melting process and you want to avoid that).
- Once formed and frozen ice balls can be stored in a freezer bag or bowl in the freezer until needed. I like to keep a cycle going of freezing and will store a dozen or more at a time so they are always available.
Balloons. The last option was passed on to me by Bobby Gleason, Master Mixologist for Beam Global Spirits & Wine. All you need is a bag of balloons, a place in the freezer to hang them when filled with water, and a night to allow the "teardrop-shaped" ice to freeze. Read more about the technique in this interview with Gleason.
How long will an ice ball last?
The answer to this depends completely on the temperature of the room, the glass, and the liquids poured over the ice. On a chilly spring evening, pouring warm bourbon and cold cola over an ice ball in a chilled glass, I have made one piece of ice last almost 2 hours, through 3 tall drinks. However, when the temperatures started to rise outside I found one ice ball would sufficiently chill one straight (room-temp) whiskey for 30 minutes without too much dilution. That is considerably longer than regular cubes in 80 degree weather.
Final thoughts on purchasing an ice ball mold:
I do also have to pass along that in my attempt to find these trays online, there are numerous ice trays available that are merely a redesign of the standard cube tray, essentially making miniature ice balls. These are likely not to have the same effect as the larger ice balls - those that fit in the palm of your hand - and, while they're cute and unique, their size tells me that they will melt as fast as any other ice cube of the same size.