Cocktail

The Secret to Making Soft Crushed Ice, Sonic-Style

May  4, 2016

In high school, I frequented the local Sonic Drive-In for good reason: Two of my best friends worked there, the outdoor patio serves as a decent hang-out spot in a pinch, and their soft crushed ice. Sonic's ice, which is famous in places where Sonic is common (i.e., the South and the Midwest) is more cloud layer than pack of icebergs.

It floats merrily along the top of a limeade like a sky full of cumulus on a sunny day. Riddled with holes, the pellets give immediately when you chew them—it's extremely satisfying ice. And in 2005 in Knoxville, Tennessee, you couldn't get it anywhere else.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

As an adult, I encounter crushed ice more frequently in its favorite cocktail—the Mint Julep—than at Sonic. Not that I drink them all the time, but with the Kentucky Derby fast-approaching (the actual race is this Saturday), it seemed a good time to find a way to get soft crushed ice at home.

And for the purists out there, I know that a julep tastes just dandy with regular crushed ice, which isn't the same as soft crushed ice—the latter is just my personal preference. So before I go on, let's define some terms (that I've made up) to distinguish between ices:

Left: large cubes of soft ice; right: large cubes of hard ice.
  • Hard ice: What typically comes out of your freezer, clear through and rock-hard until melted. Available in many shapes and sizes depending on the tray you use. Large cubes of hard ice are advantageous when only the slowest of melts is desired (see: whiskey on the rock(s)).
  • Crushed ice: Tiny pieces of hard ice, some shard-shaped and some pebbly-looking, which are solid enough to be crunched but small enough to melt away quickly. Traditional in a julep. Can be made from hard ice in a crushed ice machine, in a Lewis Bag, or with a muddler or mallet.
  • Slushie ice: This is what's in your frozen margarita, your kale smoothie, and your Slurpee. Make slushie ice by putting any drink through a blender with plenty of hard ice until the machine runs smooth.
  • Soft ice: Medium-sized pellets aerated with many tiny holes, making them at once cube-like but also easily crushed between chompers. Becomes softer the longer it spends in a beverage. The most satisfying of ices.

When I poked around for a trusty internet hack about how to make soft ice, I found mostly recommendations to hit up a Sonic (they sell big bags of the stuff, from their special ice machine, because people are obsessed with it). Others posted all the good ice crushing machines of the world, from muddlers to plug-in contraptions. But it was on a thread at MetaFilter that I got the best suggestion: Use carbonated water to suspend bubbles in normal ice cubes, which will make them aerated and therefore "soft."

I'll cut to the chase—it works. Here's how to make soft crushed ice at home:

1. Carbonate some water.

Or buy the fizziest bottle you can find (a big 2-liter of club soda would do the trick if you need lots of drinks for a derby party). The bigger the bubbles, the better.

Left, pre-muddling; right, after (medium-sized is what you're going for, about a half-inch square).

2. Freeze it.

A medium-sized cube, about a half-inch to 3/4-inch squared, is just about the perfect size for soft crushed ice (fits in mouth easily, doesn't melt too fast so you get some super-soft ones at the end of your beverage)—but it's also nice to have some tiny snowier bits floating in between them for those first sips.

Depending on how large you like your pieces, fill regular ice cube trays half or all the way full before moving onto the next step. They'll only need a few hours to set, but they'll still be soft on Saturday if you freeze them today and leave them in the freezer for days. They'll be cloudy when you pop them out.

3. Crush it.

You can makeshift a Lewis bag by fashioning a satchel from a tea towel and smashing the soft ice cubes in it with a mallet, but I opted for a muddler and heavy glass. Just give each cube a resounding whack rather than smashing them to bits. Having some tiny pellets in the mix is no bad thing. Now scoop it all into a glass, top with beverage, and slurp away.

Left, clouds of soft ice; right, icebergs of hard ice.

Big chunks are totally fine—they won't melt as quickly. (The larger pieces from this test lasted for the entire time it took me to drink the glass of water, and the best part is that they get softer and softer over time.)

Even non-ice crunchers can enjoy soft ice. I handed the above glass to my colleague Caroline, who has better manners than I do and doesn't chew her ice, and she tried crunching it. "I am not afraid of cutting the inside of my mouth on it," she said of the soft ice, and also that it reminded her of snow, was more "pebbly than glassy," and that she could envision being very happy with "a cocktail poured over a mound of it, sno-cone-style."

So if you're thinking of throwing a Derby party, or even just pouring a julep this coming Saturday, give soft ice a try. You might not know what a Sonic is, but that won't matter a bit.

Thanks for the idea, Sonic.

How do you like your ice? Let me know in the comments.

22 Comments

Charmanie C. October 25, 2017
I just LOVE soft ice!! just bought 4 bags of it from Sonics!
 
Michelle September 30, 2017
Or you could just go to Sonic and buy a bag. That is what I do - less than 3.00
 
Shamika G. August 31, 2016
I love sonic soft cloudy crushed ice.... I always ask for there fresh ice then it comes out cloudy. If you dont ask youll get hard ice clear. <br />
 
Kevin R. July 4, 2016
Thanks for this wonderful write-up. Great to know that crushed ice, Sonic style, can be this awesome. Now for all the parties and social gatherings at my home, I can always use crushed ice, and serve my guests with their favorite margaritas. And the best part is that even the non-ice cruncher love soft and crushed ice. After consuming the drink, one can even chew the soft ice which eventually melts in the mouth. I would love to buy a Sonic Ice Maker and use it to get crushed ice for all my get together henceforth.
 
Elizabeth July 4, 2016
Me too! But, alas, they are around $8000 ?
 
Nastassia O. June 24, 2016
You are my hero for posting this! I always concluded that Sonic's method of making that amazing ice involved magic. Glad to know I can achieve that magic easily enough myself!
 
Laura415 June 24, 2016
This is so interesting. I never thought of making ice from carbonated water. One thing I notice from making shrub syrup drinks is that carbonated water + Shrub syrup makes a tart and refreshing drink. But Shrub syrup + still water makes an equally refreshing drink but is much sweeter even though it contains the same ratio of water to syrup. I looked up the reason why and it appears that carbonated water is more acidic. Does the acidity of carbonated water translate to acidic flavor in the soft ice you make with it? If so that's not a problem but I would account for that extra acidity when making things with it. Sorry for the drink nerd question but I'm curious. Thx
 
Leah A. June 24, 2016
Susan that is one of my all time favorite drinks and I know that it would be great with chewy ice
 
Susann June 24, 2016
Mmmmmmmm, soft ice in a white Russian. :)
 
Madison R. June 24, 2016
LOL I thought this article was about sonication - which could have some excellent soft ice applications.
 
M June 24, 2016
So thrilled to learn this trick. I'm not blessed with an ice maker in my fridge, so this will be great. I've always been a fan of crushed ice over solid cubes. (I've actually thought of asking my local convenience store to offer "slurpees of just water and soft ice instead of the sweet flavors. What could be better when you're hot and thirsty and on the road?) My friends with ice makers ban me from using the crush feature on their fridges because they hate it when little shards get into their glasses after switching back to cubes in the first couple of seconds. Oh paaalease! Give me a break! Thank you for sharing.
 
Elizabeth June 24, 2016
FYI The new touchscreen (make your own flavor) coke machines also dish out soft ice
 
Elizabeth June 24, 2016
This is by far the best soft ice hack. Sonic has gotten greedy and priced their 10# bag of ice at double grocery store bagged ice. It a heckuva lot easier than standing around stirring ice cubes every 15 minutes until they are fully frozen. And it works every time. Ever try the supercooled water whack? Makes great soft ice but is nearly impossible to achieve. I live in the northeast and have had sonic for years but just recently became an ice chewer when discovering 'iced coffee is better than hot coffee even in winter' and never remembered the soft ice from sonic as being so great until reading an article. The quantities used in my house require cross town trips to sonic and paying their outrageous markup however, this hack will definitely be kept in stock in the fridge/freezer for those times we run out between bags.
 
Leah A. June 24, 2016
I will definitely try this. We have another place here in south eastern Georgia, Parker's its a chain of convenience stores that have chewy ice. Some of them even sells bags of it.
 
Moe August 26, 2016
My visit to Georgia really got me hooked. My family wasn't happy stopping at every Parkers we passed lol
 
Tina May 15, 2016
I can't wait to try this. Running to the store now for carbonated water.
 
Victoria M. May 9, 2016
Life Hack: Sonic Limeade + Tequila = Perfect Poolside Margarita
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. June 24, 2016
Take me to this place.
 
Stephanie May 5, 2016
This is fantastic! Can't wait to try it.
 
Jackson F. May 4, 2016
As a fellow ice-chewer, I thank you (my dentist does not)!
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. May 4, 2016
soft ice is the most likely ice to be dentist approved
 
Frank June 24, 2016
4 out of 5 dentists choose soft ice over the leading brand of hard ice.