How to Make Floral Ice Cubes to Dress Up Your Cocktails
Paul Benkert of Bluebird Cocktail Room shares his tips for marigold ice spheres.
There are cocktails that are rooted in history, and there are cocktails that have a sense of place. But very few cocktails are inspired by poetry. For Paul Benkert of Baltimore’s Bluebird Cocktail Room, drinks are vehicles to share stories, and aesthetics play a major role in conveying them.
Benkert is particularly passionate about his ice cubes, which are both hand-carved and crystal clear, thanks to a water circulator in his ice machine that keeps excess air from getting trapped inside. To add even more flair to these denser, slow-melting cubes, Benkert often fills them with flowers from local farms—specifically Karma Farm in Baltimore County.
“People drink with their eyes first,” Benkert explains. “But in addition to being beautiful, the flowers inside of our cocktails are often able to tell a better story of the different ingredients.” The drinks on Bluebird’s current cocktail menu take their names from lines in The Mad Farmer, a small book of poems written by Wendell Berry. One such drink, The Dance of the Eternal, is a barrel-aged gin Old Fashioned with saffron, poured over a marigold ice sphere.
“This cocktail features Wigle Amaro and Barr Hill Tom Cat gin, both of which are produced by East Coast distilleries largely invested in supporting responsible agriculture,” Benkert says. “The marigold in this drink does not serve a purpose beyond decoration. However, it is from a local farmer that we have a very close relationship with, and it helps us showcase his craft.”
When it comes to making floral ice cubes at home, Benkert suggests checking out a nearby flower farm. “The vast majority of flowers are edible,” he explains. “But the ones available at an average supermarket are going to be sprayed with all sorts of chemicals.” The other option is to grow the flowers yourself, and Benkert recommends working with marigolds. “They flower like crazy.”
Once you’ve sourced your flowers and it’s time to freeze, the most important thing to focus on is getting the flower to stay centered. “Not only will they float, but they’ll also move around a lot,” he says. The trick is to get a small tub, either the size of your desired ice cube, or big enough so that it can be spaced out using dividers. “Instead of filling the tub all the way up with water, stop a quarter of the way and add the flower in, allowing it to freeze so that the flower is floating on top of the water.”
“Once the base of the flower is frozen into the water, simply fill the rest of the container so that the water covers the flower completely, and then freeze it again,” Benkert advises. “So you will have a slightly visible line in the middle of your ice because it froze twice, but that's how you would get something to freeze in the middle of an ice cube using a container you already have at home.” And this trick can apply to any garnish, like berries or herbs.
Once you’ve got the technique down, the possibilities are endless. “If you’re doing a nice punch at home, you could choose a couple roses, or any big flower, and make a single ice block to put in the bowl and make a really nice display,” Benkert says.
Dance of the Eternal
- ¼ ounce Lillet
- 1 ¼ ounce Wigle Saffron Amaro
- 1 ½ ounces Barr Hill Tom Cat
Stir. Strain into a carafe. Serve over a marigold ice sphere.