Don’t Use Bad Ice in Your Cocktails - Mai Tai Recipe

Ice has become one of those things that some cocktail geeks can really… well… geek out about. You don’t have to look too hard to find people discussing the science of crystal clear ice, how to make hand-carved ice balls, or various other highly involved details about the ice that goes into mixing the perfect cocktail. As these deep examinations on ice start turning into esoteric exercise, it is easy to start dismissing the importance of ice all together. Ice is just frozen water isn’t it? What’s the big deal?

In truth, thinking about the ice you put into your drink is a very important consideration. At the most rudimentary level it is all about size/shape, and temperature.

Some bars will use what is referred to as Half-Cube or Crescent ice. These are two slightly different shapes, but about the same size, about the size of a pat of butter. This small and flatish ice will fill the glass with more ice than cubes would which will make the glass look like it is fuller of beverage than it actually is. Since there is more surface area exposed on this shape, it will melt faster as well. The result of course is a flabby drink, and not much of it. Higher end bars will go out of their way to use nice sized cube ice, the larger the cube, the less surface area exposed, and the slower the melt. For serving a drink on the rocks, you can select a size that virtually fills up the glass, but for mixing a drink you need something smaller so you aren’t fighting with the ice when you stir. The most common size is just a little over 1” cube.

From a temperature standpoint, at a fairly rudimentary level, ice can be either “wet” or so cold it is “dry”. Wet ice has already started melting, and has a thin layer of water on it, which will immediately go into the drink. “Dry” ice (not to be confused with the CO2 based “dry ice”) is so cold that its surface hasn’t started melting yet. If you touch a cube of “dry” ice, your finger will stick to it because the ice is so cold it freezes to the small bit of moisture on your finger.

So, while there is nothing wrong with geeking out about ice, your primary concern is to use nice sized cube which are as cold as possible.


2 oz aged rum

3/4 oz fresh lime juice

1/2 oz Orange Curaçao

1/2 oz Orgeat Syrup (Almond Syrup)


Shake ingredients with ice.

Strain into an old fashioned or rocks glass over large ice cubes.


8stringfan 20 Nov 2014
12:44 pm

Nice to see you update your Mai Tai recipe.  I’ve recommended your book to many, many people, but one thing I’ve pointed out is that the Mai Tai recipe is pretty bad.  FWIW, I think a good, funky, aged Jamaican rum (like Appleton 12), or a blend of aged Jamaican rum and a rhum agricole (Depaz is a nice value) are the best combos, but simply calling for an ounce of light and dark is far too vague and can result in a combination of two rums which don’t really play well together.

8stringfan 20 Nov 2014
12:52 pm

Two more things…  No mint leaf garnish?  Also, I completely agree with you about not using the “cheap” ice, but I also have issues with ice that comes from silicone molds like you suggest.  In my experience, those molds can leave a somewhat platic-y odor on the ice.  Since my fridge doesn’t have an ice maker, I do what people have done for decades - I simply use cheap plastic ice trays from Target to keep a large plastic ice bucket filled at all times in my freezer.  The ice is colder, stronger, and larger, with no plastic smell, and it makes great cocktails for me at home :)

Robert Hess 20 Nov 2014
2:17 pm

Regarding the rum to use in a Mai Tai… I always struggle with specifically mentioning a particular brand or narrowly defined product for my recipes, even though I know it can make a big difference. My feeling is that the more narrowly you define the product that needs to be used, the harder you are going to make it for somebody to make the recipe at home. The home enthusiast (at various levels of “enthusiasm”) will already have their “rums of choice”, which they feel meet their taste needs. So showing them how they can make a Mai Tai with out forcing them to feel like they have to go out and buy yet another rum makes the recipe more approachable to them… at the unfortunate cost of them making a drink which isn’t quite as good as it could have been. It’s a balancing act.

When I first started “evangelizing” cocktails, the world was a different place. The number of people who were true enthusiasts were quite small, and so I couldn’t make a lot of assumptions as to the degree of investment that folks would be willing to take. These days however we thankfully have a much better educated audience, and I think it is about time that I got a little more specific about the type/quality of products that should be used.

That said, I am STILL looking hard to find a rum that I think comes close to making a Mai Tai that would be up to what Trader Vic originally made. I’ve tried the Wray and Nephew that he used (and had gone out of production even during Vic’s days!) and it was amazingly flavorful and aromatic. I really haven’t found a “still in production” product that comes even close.


Robert Hess 20 Nov 2014
2:22 pm

On the Mint Garnish… I know that this was the original garnish, but frankly I prefer a half lime shell instead. But both are quite acceptable. The reason I didn’t garnish this drink was purely an oversight on my part. I was too caught up with the whole ice thing :->

And on silicone ice molds… I too have noticed the slight funk that can come from these molds, but it is mostly noticeable if you aren’t cycling your ice out fast enough. I make ice, and then transfer it to a large ziplock in my freezer so I always have plenty. But I also have several generic “large cube” ice trays that came with my refrigerator, and those work great, and are even larger then the tovolo cubes. I am always amazed at when I look in “kitchen stores” and such at their ice trays, that the cubes are always way too small and don’t even come close to maximizing the space the tray itself is using up.

blair frodelius 20 Nov 2014
4:45 pm

I’ve been preaching the gospel of “hard ice” for years now.  Luckily, my freezer ice machine (even though it makes crescents) makes rock hard ice which retains it’s shape even after a lot of shaking.  Visually in the glass, not so attractive as Tovolo cubes, but then again, I’m only using them for shaking.

I’ve used a few dozen different ice molds over the years, and totally agree that if you use the ice quickly, there is no odor from the mold.  In fact, I just started using a new mold which creates pure clear ice in large 3"x3” cubes.  Fantastic for visuals!

On to rum…  As you know, the original Mai Tai recipe can no longer be made, due to the specified rums being long out of production.  However, I can see both points of view for using a “blend” like Bacardi 8, or using two more cogener laden rums.  I do like Bacardi 8, and it is the best of both worlds in terms of a light style rum; but I can also see using heavier Jamaican or Nicaraguan rums.  The thing is… cocktails are meant to be experimented with.  So, it all ends up being personal preference.

Garnishes… Well… Mint leaves look pretty, but the lime shell also has color and fits in with the scheme of ingredients.  Personally, I think a “flag” of a lime wedge and a cherry works beautifully.


Blair Frodelius

charlie 21 Nov 2014
8:41 am

One of the biggest problems with store-bought ice is that oftentimes it has been sitting there for a very long time so it gets freezer-burned and just plain tastes terrible. Not only that, it can fuse into a solid block. Some stores will have a machine and bag fresh ice on the spot for you, but I find them to be rare, at least here in NYC.

As for home ice, I find one of the most critical factors to be what else you’re storing in your freezer. Ice absorbs odors from other food quite easily, and that can ruin a good cocktail (although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dave Arnold figure out a way to do it on purpose, someday. Slow-cured rosemary ice cubes, anyone? Très sous-vide!).

Rick M. 22 Nov 2014
12:14 pm

While we’re on the topic of ice, anyone know of a good, affordable ice mold to make spheres?

Have tried TWICE, using a plastic mold for one, and a silicone mold for the other, ending up having the SAME problem with both: the ice STUCK to the molds.  I’ve seen some metal, professional models on-line, but at OBSCENE prices.

Also, while on the topic of rum, can anyone recommend a WHITE rum along the lines of Banks 5 Island blend?  Tried it recently and it BLEW my mind.  Never knew a rum could be so COMPLEX.  Trying to find another equally complex rum (tried Cana Brava, but was left underwhelmed)  Thanks!

Robert Hess 23 Nov 2014
2:15 pm

Round Ice… Yes those metal molds which work REALLY well (albeit one sphere at a time), are hideously expensive. I’ve used the very simple, and very cheap plastic molds, and while they do get stuck, a quick run of warm water clears that up.


Rick M. 25 Nov 2014
1:43 pm

Sorry, Robert.  Like I said, I’ve tried TWICE and the same thing happened: they got STUCK.  When you run them under WARM water, they only end up MELTING into LITTLE balls, thereby defeating the purpose.

While I’ve GIVEN up on finding a REASONABLY priced ice ball maker, I’m still on the hunt for a quality, COMPLEX white rum ala Banks 5 Island.  How ‘bout it, people…any suggestions?  Thanks!

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