By Jude Waterston
When I was a kid, my parents occasionally entertained. They had their closest friends, maybe half a dozen couples, over for food and drinks. Though an informal gathering, I found those evenings exciting. There was a buzz in the house as my mom moved around the kitchen, an apron tied around her waist, preparing hor d’oeurves and later when my dad opened the front door, ushering couple after couple into the living room, clapping his hands together softly and asking, “What’ll you have to drink?”
One cabinet of the credenza separating the dining room from the living room was stocked with anything the heart desired, including sweet and dry vermouth; cordials; brandy and various liqueurs; not to mention hard liquor of every sort. There were periods where the majority of folks were drinking whisky sours or daiquiris, but there was always one or two martini or Manhattan lovers in attendance, and my dad could accommodate everyone.
I helped my Pop carry the booze from the cabinet into the kitchen and grabbed mixers, such as soda, Rose’s lime juice, bitters and such for him as he called for them. He’d already laid out the tools of the trade on the counter: metal shaker, long silver stirring spoon, mixing glass, and strainer. Earlier in the day he’d filled four ice cube trays with water and when they froze, he had dumped the ice into a long white plastic container stored in the freezer and kept it perpetually loaded with cubes.
My favorite part of the drink-making process was how my father methodically cracked each individual ice cube in the palm of his left hand using a plastic and metal gizmo with a flexible handle. He tapped sharply once or twice smack in the middle of the cube to break it into shards. These were placed in the tall mixing glass until three-quarters full, then came the pour. Cracked ice was for mixed drinks; whole cubes for someone drinking any spirit “on the rocks.”
Years later, in adulthood, my friends and I all lived in tiny apartments and in lieu of “entertaining,” we met at the local bar. Our abodes were just too small to accommodate even a handful of people. I happened to be the day-time bartender at a particularly popular gin mill in the Village, and my pals would gather around after work, and in that way we would hang out much the way my parents had before us. The bar was our living room.
I, too, had my arsenal of bartending tools and then some. The only department in which my dad had me beat was the size of both the glasses in which he served his cocktails and the ice cubes. Back then, and even today, if you enter a local dive, you will be served a drink in a vessel that holds as little liquid as possible and the cubes in those classes will be so tiny that the drink will almost immediately become watered down, forcing you to gulp your cocktail quickly and ask for another. This was good business for the bar owner and bad news for the elbow-bending folk lining the bar.
Near the end of my shift, I would pour myself a drink or two, and over the years I went from drinking scotch (Dewar’s) and water, to scotch on the rocks with a splash of water, to scotch on the rocks, to the ultimate grown-up’s libation: a Rob Roy. Much like a martini or Manhattan, a Roy Rob is prepared by filling a shaker glass with a touch of vermouth and a lot of scotch over ice. Then the shaker is vigorously shaken or stirred, depending on your preference, and the contents poured into a martini glass. Depending on the alcohol and type of vermouth, the drink is them garnished variously with an olive, a twist of lemon, or a Maraschino cherry.
For good or bad, there are few hangouts such as I was drawn to in my youth. Nowadays bartenders are called mixologists and cocktails are taken so seriously that not only are bar staff concocting their own bitters and infusions, they are paying close attention to the size of their ice. When I recently Googled: “the size of the ice in a cocktail” a slew of articles popped up on my screen. In April 2010, a piece in the Oregonian newspaper was titled “in the Art of the Cocktail, Ice is the Secret Ingredient,” and in March 2014, in Business Insider, there was an article on artisanal ice making in an Austin, Texas bar where each cube is cut by hand. Finally, I read that “to choose the right-sized cube, bartenders need to consider how a cube will melt. Using the wrong size cube can lead to an over-diluted drink … or one that isn’t diluted enough. Sprit-heavy drinks such as an Old Fashioned need large cubes to chill the cocktail without watering it down.” Apparently, “different rules apply to drinks laced with citrus juice. These drinks want to be good and cold, and to be diluted more, something best accomplished by regular cube ice.” A last quote: “The general rule that boozier beverages need bigger cubes explains why we’re seeing more slow-melting spherical ice and large hand-carved cubes at ingredient-focused bars.” Spherical? Really?
My personal challenge regarding ice size has become such because I have found, with the increase in my age, that Rob Roys have become too strong a libation. The combination of vermouth, which comes from the grape, and whisky, which comes from wheat, is simply now too much for me. The entire glass is filled with only slightly diluted pure alcohol, and the chemistry of those two spirits does something to me. Something powerful. I just can’t drink like I used to, which some would find good, if not admiral, news. So, in the past couple of years I have reverted back to scotch on the rocks. However, moments after pouring my drink, I find that the cubes have just about totally dissolved, and I have a water-downed drink that lacks distinction. I like the burn of scotch and the frankness of its flavor, but I don’t enjoy it straight up. I prefer it chilled.
I saw an ad for these adorable little soapstone cubes the size of a pair of playing dice that are placed in the freezer until cold, then dropped into a drink and, voila, they keep the drink chilled without watering it down. They did absolutely nothing except look weird in the bottom of my glass. I tried colorful plastic balls filled with some kind of liquid which did even less to spark my drink. Then recently I opened a high-glass cooking magazine and actually came upon a piece about a bartender who filled balloons with water until they were somewhat larger than an extra-large egg; then he made a knot in the stretched latex and froze them. When he was ready to make a stiff drink, he simply made a slit in the plastic and slipped off the balloon. Behold! A giant oval ice cube that not only fits perfectly in a large wine glass, but takes up so much room that the alcohol poured around it is instantly chilled and stays so for the duration of sipping the cocktail. My freezer is now filled with balloons in all hues and my nightly drink is a delight.
Makes about 8 glasses of sangria
Sangria is traditionally served over ice, but rather than filling each person’s glass with ice cubes, just drop one or two large balls of ice into the pitcher to keep the beverage cold.
1 bottle (750ml) dry Spanish wine
½ cup orange-flavored liqueur such as triple sec or Cointreau
¼ cup brandy (I use Courvoisier)
1 ¼ cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon superfine sugar (or simple syrup)
About 1 ½ cups mixture of fruits such as blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, sliced oranges, and skinned and cubed plums
1 ½ cups club soda
Mix together the wine, orange-flavored liqueur, orange juice, brandy and sugar in a large pitcher. Add the fruit and stir gently. Refrigerate for at least one hour and up to 4. When ready to serve, add the club soda and stir to combine. Add one or two large balls of ice to pitcher and serve. With a long spoon, retreat a few pieces of fruit and add to each glass.