Where mixology is concerned, ice remains hot property. Used judiciously, serving a drink on the rocks can elevate a cocktail or highball to the sublime. To get the most out of the ice, choose the right size and amount, plus the ideal cocktail in which to use it.

Serving a drink on the rocks can mean anything from pouring a shot over a single cube in a short tumbler to filling the gaps in a tall glass stacked with ice. Whereas purists might prefer to take a single malt whiskey or brandy neat -- meaning, without ice -- adding ice gives a crisper finish and mitigates any afterburn from the spirit.

Likewise, American whiskeys, such as Tennessee or Kentucky bourbons, can be sipped neat or served on the rocks, either in a short old-fashioned tumbler or tall Collins glass.

In reality, the majority of blended cocktails, from the Bloody Mary to Long Island Ice Tea, are served on the rocks, but each already has its designated serving method, so it is not usually necessary to ask a bartender for a cocktail "on the rocks."

Serving a cocktail over the rocks doesn’t mean you can’t shake it up beforehand. For a Mojito, for example, the cocktail benefits from muddling the mint first, mixing it with the spirits, then shaking over ice. Pouring chilled Mojito over ice keeps it fresher for longer.

Whereas fast food outlets might pack sodas indiscriminately with ice to occupy volume and mask taste, ice in a cocktail is as vital an ingredient as the spirit and bitters.

  • For whiskeys or sours, such as an Old-Fashioned, a single, large cube of ice will do. The idea is that the drink will be finished before the ice melts, with just enough dissolving to lend the last few sips a clearer finish.
  • Tall highballs such as gin and tonic, on the other hand,  benefit from smaller ice cubes stacked to the rim. The clash of flavors is already sufficiently harsh that the ice provides balance, as well as allowing the drinker to linger as it melts.
  • For juleps or cobblers, shaved or crushed ice is standard, which will require breaking up the ice cubes in a bag or blender.  

Ice spears, long icicle-shaped shards that stand up in the glass, are also ideal for tall drinks as they melt slowly and lend an aesthetic flourish. Try them with a Bloody Mary, where they’ll hold their place alongside celery sticks.

Follow the lead of the top cocktail lounges and aim for clear cubes of ice with precise edges. At a commercial level, the process requires special coolers that freeze the ice gradually from a single direction, allowing the bubbles to clear. To make clear ice at home, though, freeze a cooler filled three-quarters of the way with purified water and hack off ice as needed with a pick.

  • Avoid adding the ice from a bucket or it will melt too quickly and weaken the drink. Take the cubes straight from the freezer instead.
  • Use a silicon mold to achieve a variety of shapes and sizes, from large to small cubes, spheres and spears.