Rocky Relationships - Spirits Made Better With Ice

Lucano Amaro on ice
Lucano Amaro on ice

Spirits on ice! No, it’s not a skating show (although wouldn’t that be a fun Ice Capades alternative geared toward adults?), it’s booze with a cube. Seems obvious, but in a world of complicated cocktails, we sometimes want to keep things simple. And cold. Purists tend to think adding ice somehow offends a well crafted spirit, diluting its full flavor potential. However, some spirits blossom when ice is added to it, bringing the best flavors once banished to the background right into the fore.

Why? Because science! Once the spirit is warmed in the mouth, the chilled out flavor molecules wake up and shoot straight up to the nose. It's called retronasal olfaction. It happens whether or not you cool a liquor, but the effect is enhanced by the water in the ice activating some of the aromatic molecules that were dormant without it. (Shout out to my academic parents who have been waiting over forty years for me to finally say something scientific.)

Below are some spirits categories you might not have thought to sip on the rocks. Here’s why it’s cool to drink them this way:

Nocino: It’s a traditional Italian digestivo made from walnuts and spices. Watershed Distillery in Columbus, Ohio got the wacky idea of making their own American version from locally grown nuts. The tricky part is the spirit must be made with not-quite-ripe walnuts harvested before they fully form and fall off the tree (otherwise the shells are too hard and brittle to work with), so it takes a bit of finesse. The result is a thick, viscous liqueur that’s a bit too rich to sip straight from the bottle. However, add some ice and a strip of lemon or orange peel and it transforms into highly quaffable after dinner drink that has an espresso-like flavor, but without the unwanted stimulation.

Amaro: I’m a huge fan of Amaro, but when the temperatures rise, it can feel too sticky to drink it. Summers get very schvitzy in Italy, where it comes from. That’s why for generations, Italians have been partaking of their Amari on the rocks as they relax at outdoor cafés on the piazza watching the vespas whizz by. Once some ice enters the mix, Amaro Lucano magically transforms from something dark and inky to an elixir with a refreshing, almost berry-like quality. Lucano on the rocks is sublime with a well made cocktail cherry or even a couple of fresh berries. Ciaooooooo.

Watershed Nocino prime for icy deliciousness
Watershed Nocino prime for icy deliciousness

Perfecto Amor: Attending the 7 Piscos 14 Cocktails event in New York City recently, I was reminded just how versatile a spirit Peruvian Pisco can be. It was here that I was introduced to Barsol Perfecto Amor, which rightfully translates to “perfect love,” named for the union of Pisco spirit and first crush juice made from Quebranta, Italia and Torontel grape varietals. Each is separately fortified with Pisco of matching varietals before fermentation, their fresh aromatics imparting the character of a European mistelle, but Latin American style. Its aromatic caramel flavor is best with a couple of rocks, a splash of soda and a squeeze of lime. Hellooooo, lovah.

Kina: Somewhere between vermouth and bitters lies kina. Original recipes date back to the late 19th century, when it was intended as a palatable vehicle for quinine to guard soldiers against airborne diseases in the tropics (see? it’s good for you!), and now it has become a favorite ingredient for cocktail aficionados for its place in early drink recipes. Tempus Fugit Kina L'Aéro d'Or has golden fruit flavors with a bite of bitter in the finish. At 36 proof, it’s a delicious low proof choice you can sip on ice or with a spritz that won’t make you feel woozy, but still feels like a proper drink.

Bourbon on the rocks, photo by Dominick
Bourbon on the rocks, photo by Dominick

Cask Strength Bourbon: It’s over 120 proof, people. Sure. You can be the badass you pretend to be and sip Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve 9 Year Old Bourbon (bronze medal, 2014 NY International Spirits Competition) neat and tell everyone how smooth you think it is as leaves a trail of flames down your esophagus. Or you can accept that this is a barrel proof spirit that was intended to be diluted to taste so you can actually appreciate its subtle nuances. It happens to be in a perfect spring and summer whiskey category, because it’s best with a couple of rocks on a steamy evening on the porch as the fireflies circle round you. It doesn’t make you less virile to drink whiskey this way; it makes you happier.

Gold Rum: Rum can be a gorgeous spirit when imbibed in its naked glory. However, for a special treat I like a good gold rum neat with a big ice cube. Cockspur VSOR 12 Year (stands for Very Special Old Reserve) is a deep amber gold rum with the rich flavors of a heavier blend. Add a cube and winter spices magically appear in the glass. It’s like drinking a chilled ginger snap. All year round.

Cheers!