What Ice to Use for Whiskey: 4 Essential Criteria

Drinking whiskey with ice opens up its flavors, reduces the alcohol burn, and can be very refreshing especially on a hot day. But you need to be careful that by adding ice to whiskey you’re not also transferring unpleasant aromas and flavors to your whiskey or ruining it. Since these problems are caused by using the wrong type of ice, you can avoid them when you know the four essential criteria that make the best ice to use in whiskey.

A glass of whiskey with large ice sphere and a glass of whiskey with a large ice cube

1. Made From Clean, Pure Water

The ice used in whiskey should be made from clean water that has as few impurities as possible. That’s because whiskey is all about the flavors it’s spent years or even decades picking up while being matured in barrels, so the last thing you want to do is to ruin it by adding ice made from water that has lots of impurities and a bad taste, because that will all be transferred to your whiskey.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to use filtered or bottled water to make ice for whiskey. If your tap water has few impurities and tastes good, then it will probably be okay to use that to make ice for whiskey, especially if you freeze the water in a way that removes impurities (more on that in a bit).

On the other hand, if your tap water contains a lot of impurities, or if it tastes bad or even if it has a distinctive taste – you want to taste the flavor of your whiskey not the flavor of your water, then you should use filtered or even bottled water as these issues may not be eliminated by freezing the water in a way that removes impurities.

It’s obviously more expensive to use filtered or bottled water to make ice for whiskey than tap water, but it’s even more expensive to ruin your very expensive whiskey.

2. Large Or Giant and Sphere Shaped

Large or giant ice cubes or even (large or giant) ice spheres is the best ice to use when drinking whiskey. That’s because larger ice cubes are less likely to ruin your whiskey than smaller ice cubes so the bigger they are the better. Here’s why.

Ice is added to whiskey to lower its temperature and reduce the burn of the alcohol but if your drink becomes too cold it will mute the whiskey’s aromas and flavors. Lower temperatures prevent flavor molecules from evaporating so there’ll be less aromas to smell, and because flavor is a combination of taste and smell you won’t get some of the flavors either.

Ice also opens up the flavors of the whiskey by diluting the alcohol that keeps them closed up when it melts. This is a continuous process and the more the ice melts, the more the whiskey’s flavors open up. You’ll want to taste all the changes in your whiskey as the ice melts, so you won’t want this to happen too fast or you’ll miss it. You’ll also not want your whiskey to become too diluted or there will be nothing left to taste.

That’s why using one giant ice cube, or two large ones is better than using five or six smaller ones. You may have the same amount of ice, but one large ice cube has less surface area than many smaller ice cubes put together, so it will melt slower. Your whiskey won’t become too cold (at least not anytime soon), you’ll have plenty of time to taste all the flavor changes in your whiskey and you’ll (probably) finish it before it becomes too diluted.

Large or giant ice spheres are even better than large or giant ice cubes because spheres have less surface area than cubes of the same volume.

If you only have smaller ice cubes, or you want to drink whiskey from a nosing glass so you can’t use larger ice cubes as they won’t fit through its narrow opening, then things will be a bit more complicated if you want to achieve the same results as using large ice cubes. You’ll need to remove the ice before your whiskey becomes too cold and then add a few drops of (clean and pure) water yourself each time you want to open up more of your whiskey’s flavor.

3. Clear and Not Cloudy

A cloudy ice cube and a clear ice cube

When drinking whiskey, you should use clear ice cubes and not cloudy ones. That’s because the cloudiness in cloudy ice cubes is impurities that will be transferred to your whiskey and contaminate it, and air trapped inside the ice cube which makes it fragile, so it will break quicker and melt sooner.

Cloudy ice cubes are a result of the way in which the water was frozen. If you simply pour water into ice molds and put them in the freezer then the resulting ice cubes will be cloudy. That’s because your freezer will cool all sides of the mold at once, so the outermost parts will freeze first, and the innermost part will freeze last. And since it’s the purest water that freezes first – on the outside, all the air and impurities become trapped in the center of the ice.

To make clear ice cubes you’ll need to freeze water in a way that allows you to remove any air and impurities. First, you’re going to need the following:

  • A small cooler with a removeable flip lid ($10 – $15)
  • A bread knife or other serrated knife to cut the ice
  • A wooden mallet or hammer

The sides and bottom of a cooler are insulated. This means that the water inside it will freeze from the top down and not from the outside in, so the impurities will be pushed to the bottom.

Remove the lid of the cooler and fill it ¾ of the way with whatever type of water you’re using – even distilled and bottled water should be frozen this way as they still contain some impurities. Put the cooler in the freezer and let the water freeze halfway (this takes about 24 hours for a 5-quart cooler). That way, when you take the cooler out the freezer, you’ll have a top layer of clear ice that froze first, a bottom, less frozen layer of cloudy ice and a fair amount of unfrozen water.

Wait fifteen minutes before removing the ice from the cooler so it can melt a little bit and become loose. It will be easier to remove from the cooler and it won’t crack if you touch it.

Flip the cooler onto a cutting board over the sink so that the unfrozen water doesn’t go all over the place. Let the impure water drain off and use a mallet to break away the less frozen cloudy layer of ice that’s now on top. You’ll be left with a block of crystal-clear ice.

You’ll need to cut the block of ice into smaller (yet still large) cubes with your bread / serrated knife. Saw a little bit into the ice to score it and then lightly tap across the whole of the top of the blade with the mallet and the ice will break off. Keep cutting until you’ve turned the block of ice into many large ice cubes.

This method of making clear ice does take a long time, but it’s also the cheapest option. If you want a method that’s quicker because you don’t need to cut up blocks of ice, then you’ll have to buy special ice molds (they’re $50 – $150) that are insulated at the bottom and at the sides like a cooler. That way you get the best of both worlds. Freezing from the top down so you can remove the impurities but in molds, so you don’t need to cut up a block of ice.

If you want a method that’s quick and cheap then the best you’ll be able to do is make ice cubes that are partially clear. Use regular ice molds and either distilled / bottled water or boiled tap water.

If you use distilled or bottled water then you’ll end up with clearer ice cubes than if you use tap water, because although all water contains some impurities distilled and bottled water have far fewer than tap water. On the other hand, using distilled or bottled water to make ice is more expensive than using tap water.

If you use boiled tap water, then your ice should be slightly less cloudy than if you didn’t boil the water. That’s because boiling doesn’t remove any impurities (boiling causes water to evaporate and leave impurities behind) but because hot water resists oxygen penetration as it freezes, you will at least prevent air being trapped inside the ice cube.

4. Uncontaminated By Place And Time

Ice is porous and has tiny spaces through which liquid or air can get inside. This means that ice will absorb the smells and flavors of the things around it and transfer them to your drink. That’s why you need to make sure the ice you want to use for whiskey doesn’t become contaminated.

This means being careful where you store ice cubes in the freezer. There may be all sorts of smelly things in there and a few hours in a confined space with them will cause your ice cubes to become contaminated. Put ice cubes for whiskey in an airtight container or sealed zip lock bag or, if you’re wealthy and worried enough, its own freezer. 

For the same reason, it’s best to use newer ice cubes rather than older ones. The older the ice cubes are the more time they’ve had to absorb the smells and flavors of the things around them. The newer the ice cubes are the more likely they are to be fresh and uncontaminated. That’s why it’s best to use ice cubes within a week of making them.

Josh Mitchell

I'm Josh Mitchell. I love whiskey and am working on increasing my whiskey tasting abilities and my collection.

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