Keeping Cocktails Cold Without Dilution

For many of you, this will be a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but I see so many dumb approaches to cooling cocktails being pushed that I had to try to clear a few things up.

First, a bit of physics.  Ice cubes cool your drink in two ways.   First and perhaps most obviously, the ice is colder than your drink.  Put any object that is 32 degrees in a liquid that is 72 degrees and the warmer liquid will transfer heat to the cooler object.  The object you dropped in will warm and the liquid will cool and their temperatures will tend to equilibrate.  The exact amount that the liquid will cool depends on their relative masses, the heat carrying capacity of each material, and the difference in their temperatures.

However, for all but the most unusual substances, this cooling effect will be minor in comparison with the second effect, the phase change of the ice.  Phase changes in water consume and liberate a lot of heat. I probably could look up the exact amounts, but the heat absorbed by water going from 32 degree ice to 33 degree water is way more than the heat absorbed going from that now 33 degree water to room temperature.

Your drink needs to be constantly chilled, even if it starts cold, because most glasses are not very good insulators.  Pick up the glass -- is the glass cold from the drink?  If so, this means the glass is a bad insulator.  If it were a good insulator, the glass would be room temperature on the outside even if the drink were cold.  The glass will absorb some heat from the air, but air is not really a great conductor of heat unless it is moving.  But when you hold the glass in your hand, you are making a really good contact between your drink and an organic body that is essentially circulating near-100 degree fluid around it.  Your body is pumping heat into your cocktail.

Given this, let's analyze two common approaches to supposedly cooling cocktails without excessive dilution:

  1. Cold rocks.   You put these things in the freezer and put them in your drink to keep it cold.  Well, this certainly will not dilute the drink, but it also will not keep it very cold for long.   Remember, the equilibration of temperatures between the drink and the object in it is not the main source of heat absorption, it is the phase change and the rocks are not going to change phase in your drink.  Perhaps if you cooled the rocks in liquid nitrogen?  I don't know.
  2. Large round ice balls.  There is nothing that is more attractive in my cocktail than a perfect round ice ball.  A restaurant here in town called the Gladly has a way of making these beautiful round flaw-free ice balls that look like they are Steuben glass.  The theory is that with a smaller surface to volume ratio, the ice ball will melt slower.  Which is probably true, but all this means is that the heat transfer is slower and the cooling is less.   But again, the physics should be roughly the same -- it is going to cool mostly in proportion to how much it melts.  If it melts less, it cools less.  I have a sneaking suspicion that bars have bought into this ice ball thing to mask tiny cocktails -- I have been to several bars which have come up with ice balls or cylinders that are maybe 1 mm smaller in diameter than the glass so that a large glass holds about an ounce of cocktail.

I will not claim to be an expert but I like my bourbon drinks cold and have adopted this strategy -- perhaps you have others.

  1. Keep the bottles chilled.   I keep Vodka in the freezer and bourbon and a few key mixers in the refrigerator.   It is much easier to keep something cool than to cool it the first time, and this is a good dilution-free approach to the initial cooling.  I don't know if this sort of storage is problematic for the liquor -- I have never found any issues.
  2. Keep your drinking glass in the freezer.  Again, it will warm in your hand but an initially warm glass is going to pump heat into whatever you pour into it.
  3. Use a special glass.   I have gone through two generations on this.  My first generation was to use a double wall glass with an air gap. This works well and you can find many choices on Amazon.  Then my wife found some small glasses at Tuesday Morning that were double wall but have water in the gap.  You put them in the freezer and not only does the glass get cold but the water in the middle freezes.  Now I can get some phase change cooling in my cocktail without dilution.  You have to get used to holding a really cold glass but in Phoenix we have no complaints about such things.

Things I don't know but might work:  I can imagine you could design encapsulated ice cubes, such as water in a glass sphere.  Don't know if anyone makes these.  There are similar products with gel in them that freezes, and double wall glasses with gel.  I do not know if the phase change in the gel is better or worse for heat absorption than phase change of water.  I have never found those cold packs made of gel as satisfactory as an ice pack, but that may be just a function of size.  Anyone know?

Update:  I believe this is what I have, though since we bought them at Tuesday Morning their provenance is hard to trace.  They are small, but if you are sipping straight bourbon or scotch this is way more than enough.

Postscript:  I was drinking old Fashions for a while but switched to a straight mix of Bourbon and Cointreau.  Apparently there is no name for this cocktail that I can find, though its a bit like a Bourbon Sidecar without the lemon juice.  For all your cocktails, I would seriously consider getting a jar of these, they are amazing.  The Luxardo cherries are nothing like the crappy bright red maraschino cherries you see sold in grocery stores.


  1. Matthew Slyfield:

    There is another solution you didn't mention.

    Re-usable ice cubes, These are similar to the cold rocks, but rather than being solid, they are hollow (usually plastic) and filled with water or blue-ice solution.

    The best of both worlds, you get the thermal impact of phase-change without dilution.

  2. Tim Broberg:

    Dry ice?

  3. Justin:

    Bored at work so....
    Melting a 25g ice cube requires about 8.3 kJ, while warming the same mass of water to room temperature is about 2.3 kJ. So, ~80% of the cooling is from the ice melting.

  4. bloke in france:

    30 or more years ago the more salubrious joints in Singapore were serving beer in glasses fetched from the freezer.
    Actually, I preferred the more insalubrious joints, where the food was better.

  5. Sam Hardwick:

    There's one more way ice cubes cool your drink: by releasing freezing temperature water into it.

  6. marque2:

    When I was in high school we learned 1.4 kcal per mole (18 grams) vs 9 cal per mole increasing one degree of ice (31 -32degf for instance) and 18 cal per mole for water 33-34 deff as an example. Water to.steam was 9.8 kcal per mole (for reference a human uses 1500 - 2000 kcal per day)

    So question is why did calories, which we all understand become in PC and replaced with this bizarre Newton-meter/second stuff (Joule) with 0.239 cal per joules.

  7. marque2:

    And all the bacteria that grow on the plastic. It is often proclaimed that the joke plastic ice cubes with the fake fly are more likely to cause disease than a real fly in your drink.

  8. Angus Stocking:

    I also like bourbon and orange liqueur (I like Patron Citronge, as it is cheaper and nearly as good as Cointreau) and I call it an "Orange Sunshine". But that's my invention.

  9. Dustin Barnard:

    We had those when I was growing up! I think it was because my mom liked REALLY cold milk, but obviously diluted milk is gross.

  10. ErikTheRed:

    Critical topic! I love the Bodun double-wall glasses - they work extremely well, come in a variety of sizes, and are quite stylish (for the fellow geeks out there I spotted them in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica - Commander Adama used them in his quarters). The downside is that they're exceptionally fragile - even dropping ice cubes into an empty tall glass can break them. I wouldn't recommend them for households with small children or clumsy people of any age, unless you're like us and willing to say "Whatever, they break" and have a small cupboard dedicated to stocking replacements.

  11. Rick C:

    I recall seeing a glass--or perhaps it was a pitcher--once that had, essentially, a pocket for ice. You'd put some cubes in it, but since they weren't actually in the liquid, they wouldn't dilute it.

  12. Brad Warbiany:

    Good point on the cold rocks. I bought some of those and found them to be pretty weak at chilling a drink, and hadn't really taken time to consider why.

    I was just looking at some of the gel-filled freezable glasses on Amazon the other day, but too many of them had reviews basically claiming that they break easily. I think the stress of freeze/thaw cycles was too much for a lot of them. Granted it might have just been that brand, but I'd keep an eye on reviews of similar items if you're looking for them.

    Personally I don't worry about it. I drink whiskey and bourbon straight, and because they're typically more aggressive flavors than scotch, I'll drop some ice in. The dilution isn't a big problem for me as they're already strongly flavored and as I don't let them sit around too long. When drinking scotch, I'll just take it neat.

  13. Zachriel:

    the heat absorbed by water going from 32 degree ice to 33 degree water is way more than the heat absorbed going from that now 33 degree water to room temperature.

    The usual way to state it is for ice at 0°C to liquid water at 0°C, which requires 334 joules per gram of water. It requires about 4.2 joules to raise the temperature of liquid water 1°C, so to raise it to 23°C would require roughly 100 joules. As you point out, it is the phase change from solid to liquid that requires the most energy.

  14. ErikTheRed:

    The complexity with using enclosed frozen water is that water is one of the few common substances that significantly changes its density between liquid and solid states - meaning it expands when it freezes and shrinks when it melts (which does horrible things to roads and other structures that get water trapped inside that later freezes). In order to go with that you need an outer material flexible enough to accommodate that while maintaining its elasticity through large and relatively sudden temperature changes. It's probably a fairly interesting materials problem.

  15. McG:

    I've read that Scotch is best when mixed with water, and I find I agree. I just prefer that the water and Scotch be chilled as a part of the process of dilution -- hence, Scotch on the rocks.

  16. Justin:

    The physics is the same regardless of what units you use. Calories are a pretty terrible unit though, there are at least a half a dozen different definitions for it.

  17. Joshua:

    I had all of the pieces, but I never put it together that the phase change is a significant contributor to the cooling effect of ice. And I had wondered why the cocktail stones I have don't work very well.

    Maybe you can't spell, but you sure are pretty smart!

  18. bloke in france:

    Tar, as in tarmacadam.
    Elastic but not enough to prevent potholes.
    The guy that invents a road that can cope with the expansiion of water when it turns to ice will make a well deserved fortune.

  19. Maddog:

    I suggest you name this drink Coyote Sunshine. To eliminate your hand warming the drink I would recommend switching to a stemmed glass and holding the glass at the stem.

    Mark Sherman

  20. Griz Hebert:

    One large cube per shot.

  21. herdgadfly:

    Maraschino Cherries are not cherries after being processed. Typically, fresh Montmorency red cherries are bleached with calcium chloride and sulfur dioxide until they turn yellow and lose their natural flavor. Then they're marinated in high fructose corn syrup and Red #4 food coloring for upwards of three weeks. Colored corn sugar inside a natural but tasteless shell of a cherry is absurd.

    Why are these red cherries modified? Simply because red cherries are tart, as in sour. Sweet cherries, such as the Bing, are edible off the tree. These fresh cherries are quite dark – sometimes almost purple or black - which doesn't look good atop your Brandy Old Fashioned or in White House ice cream.

  22. Sam P:

    calorie is a much older unit of measurement, specified when chemists and scientists were characterizing materials by heating things up, freezing, melting, vaporizing, burning. etc. So its (original) defined using familiar to such practitioners of that time, the heat energy to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree.

    Joule comes from choosing a few standards (a kilogram for mass, a second for time, a meter for length) then defining energy in terms of those units.

    (Though those standards aren't precisely arbitrary, since 1 cc of water at STP masses approximately 1 gram and that is not a coincidence)

  23. Matthew Slyfield:

    You're supposed to wash them before re-freezing them. Duh! The ones I had were even dishwasher safe.

  24. PhillipW:

    Drink faster.

  25. White Rock Mike:

    Now this sort of advice is why I keep you in my news reader feed. Those cherries are amazing.

  26. Kevin Hales:

    Somehow our host neglected to mention how many N-scale tank cars it takes to deliver one shot of Bourbon.

    Geez! I might have to find another blog to read. :)

  27. Orion Henderson:

    I dunno, maybe it's just me-but I like the dilution. It's part of the process and also prolongs the whole experience.

  28. Orion Henderson:

    Or he could just wear oven mitts when drinking.

  29. Maddog:

    True. But this Freeze Pack would be a bit more refined than oven mitts, and it would do double duty by keeping the drink cold:

    While my advice is tongue in cheek, it would work. Frankly, if Coyote stitched the ends together and added a gel pack bottom, it would make a fine coaster cooler.

    On the other hand, perhaps if Coyote would move to a cooler climate, say Oymyakon, Russia, he could sit out on the back porch and not to worry about his drink warming, iced or not. He might need to determine the freezing temperature of a Coyote Sunrise, with temperatures averaging about -60 below zero during winter months. It would be quite annoying to have one's drink freeze solid mid sip.

    Mark Sherman

  30. uncle_bill:

    I have been making a drink like yours for years, and always called it a Fancy Whiskey. But I have no idea where I got that name, and I can't seem to find it on the web. By the way, I think it is just as good with triple sec as with Cointreau. But, maybe that is because I am just a plebian, with no sense of the finer things in life.

  31. marque2:

    That is why those reusable cubes all have an air bubble in them. Air pressure inside the cube goes up just a little bit when the ice expands into the airspace. If the plastic were 100% filled with water yes it would warp.

  32. Kris Sandbom:

    this is how a refrigerator works, only it phase changes a liquid to a gas,

  33. Kris Sandbom:

    incorporate a peltier cooler in the base of the glass? lol

  34. Bruce Anderson:

    There is precisely one definition of a calorie. It is the energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water at its maximum density (i.e. 3.9 deg C) by one centigrade degree. For these kind of back of an envelope calculations, it's a lot easier to use than joules. Heat capacity is one, heat of fusion is about 80, and heat of vaporization is about 540.

  35. Bruce Anderson:

    Another approach is to drink from a massive vessel taken from the freezer. I don't use it anymore, because it is a pain to remember to return it to the freezer, but I have a granite tumbler with walls about a half inch thick.

  36. Justin:

    From my CRC Handbook: "Several calories of slightly different values have been used. The thermochemical calorie is now defined as 4.184 J"

    So, more than one definition and the definition in use by chemists today isn't based on water; better luck next time. What is easier is purely a matter of opinion. The fact that you have physical properties of water memorized in terms of calories sure didn't make it any easier for me, I still had to look up heat of fusion. Guess what units the CRC used?

    Most importantly, why does it matter what units I used? If you want to check my work you can use whatever units you want, the latent/sensible ration will be the same regardless.

  37. coyoteblog:

    yeah, the glasses have an air gap in them

  38. Maddog:

    The Sun had a few idea in today's edition:

    A high top sneaker as cup holder and coaster.

    How about a brief case with the lining removed, replaced with insulation, and then filled with finely crushed ice or better yet dry ice. Dry ice would give the case a mysterious effect, and it would keep drinks cold in nearly any condition. I still think to move to Yakutsk a brilliant way to keep drinks cold out on the deck.

    Mark Sherman

  39. BillyOblivion:

    If bacterial growth is a problem you need to mix your drinks stronger.

  40. obloodyhell:

    Just curious, not being much of an alcohol drinker myself -- is there a reason not to use a Yeti cup? I have found the latest versions of these, very inexpensive via internet, or at Wal-Mart, by Aladdin, Ozark Trail, and several similar companies, to be downright AWESOME in their capacity to remain quite cold for a very very long time. Fill a 32oz stainless glass with ice, put soda in it, and the leave it to sit -- it will STILL HAVE ICE in it 12 and even 24 hours later if left in a typical air conditioned room. They make smaller sizes, for coffee, for example, for soup, since you might not want a quart of cocktail.


    or this:

    or this:
    This is the middle one. 16oz, enameled, but double wall SS

  41. obloodyhell:

    "That man is richest, whose pleasures are cheapest".

  42. Nehemiah:

    To keep my drink from warming, I drink it quickly.

  43. Shannon:

    I use a 10oz Yeti "Lowball" cup for my cocktails and it works perfectly. On the weekends, I upgrade to the 20oz Yeti! My preference is a couple of bigger cubes (old-school ice tray not automatic ice) in my drink. I like a little dilution in my bourbon. It cuts the alcohol and releases a lot of flavor.