I'll admit, when I heard about the Wintersmiths Ice Baller, I was skeptical. I've tried so many different products and hacks to make clear ice, I didn't think one more goofy gadget was going to do the trick. And the last thing most people need is another gadget with an $85 price tag.
But now I'm a convert.
How Does it Work?
The ice baller has a few key components: a silicon mold, an insulating outer mold, and a stainless steel tumbler. The pieces look a little goofy on their own, but everything snaps together relatively easily.
Once you've got the ice baller assembled, making ice is as simple as filling the top with water, tapping the device lightly to allow air to escape, and loading the whole thing into your freezer.
Unlike the polar ice tray, which takes several days to make a single cube of ice, the ice baller really does spit out a fully-frozen sphere in just one night. I tried a few iterations and found that my freezer produced a sphere in about 16 hours.
I spoke with company founder and designer Chris Little and he explained the basic mechanics of his design to me. The ice baller relies on the principle of directional freezing—that is, the ice sphere in the upper silicone mold freezes first and forces impurities into water resting in the stainless steel bottom portion of the device. When the water in the bottom portion freezes, it expands and creates cloudy ice. But, by the time that happens, the top portion (the sphere) is already frozen solid and clear.
Little recommends using the ice baller at 0°F, but says he's tested it between -10°F and 10°F and gotten clear ice consistently. When I tested the ice baller at home, it consistently made clear ice. I did find that using slightly warmer than room temperature water helped get rid of the last tiny streaks that sometimes appeared, but the difference was small.
Little told me that during development, he spent the majority of the engineering effort on carefully calibrating the exact dimensions of the device. The stainless steel cup is actually double-walled. This means that it insulates the water in the lower portion of the device much more than a standard metal container would. That's how the device keeps the bottom portion from freezing until the top has frozen first.
In my box, there was a small strip of paper recommending that the user apply a thin layer of neutral oil (like canola) to the inside of the sphere mold. I tried freezing ice both ways and can attest that using the oil definitely helps with releasing the ice ball. You can also rinse the outside of the device with cool water to help the ice break away from the mold.
One more tidbit: Little says that some customers haven't been able to get distilled water to freeze clear. I'm not sure what's going on there, but I wouldn't recommend using distilled water in a drink anyway. Use any good-tasting water instead.
Does Clear Ice Really Last Longer?
Without a doubt, the Wintersmith's ice baller makes the clearest ice sphere I've ever seen from a mold, and the results are consistent and repeatable.
If you want to make ice spheres purely for aesthetic reasons, I don't know of a better option on the market. These ice balls really do look awesome.
But perhaps you've been told that clear ice melts more slowly than cloudy ice. Is that really true?
I did a few tests to separate fact from fiction.
Test #1: Clear Ice Ball vs. Standard Ice Half-Moons
In my first test, I weighed a clear ice ball made with the Wintersmith's device (97g) and then weighed out 97g of half-moon shaped ice from the ice maker built into my kitchen freezer. I loaded both samples into double-old-fashioned glasses and then topped them off with 3 ounces of room-temperature water.
Left alone, it took almost an hour and a half for my ice samples to melt away to almost nothing. When I finally called the experiment, there was still a small amount of ice from both samples left in the glass.
You can see a (long, boring) video of the entire experiment here.
If you don't feel like watching 90 minutes of ice melting, here's the Cliff's Notes version: the small wedges of ice do melt faster than the large sphere, but the difference in time isn't that drastic. It's not like small chunks of ice melt immediately upon contact with room temperature whiskey.
With that being said, a clear sphere used for the 30 minutes it takes to drink a cocktail remains attractive and could adorn a second drink, while spent wedges from the freezer have melted down a bit and deserve to be dumped.
Of course, my test was purely qualitative. In a recent, more quantitative test, Nick Guy of the Sweethome concluded that a large ice cube will keep whisky in the optimal dilution range for about 5 minutes longer than small cubes.
Test #2: Clear Ice Ball vs. Cloudy Ice Ball
A large sphere will melt a bit more slowly than small wedges of ice. But that's probably due to the fact that spheres have a smaller surface area to mass ratio than wedges do. But what's the obsession with clear ice about? How much of a difference does clarity make?
To find out, I picked up two other popular ice sphere molds and tested them against the Wintersmiths Ice Baller. The Tovolo Sphere Ice Molds makes 2.5" balls while this plastic Japanese mold produced 2.125" spheres. For comparison, the Wintersmiths model creates 2.36" balls. I couldn't find any other popular devices that created 2.36" spheres for a more direct comparison.
To test melting, I used one ball per glass and topped each off with a generous 3-ounce pour of water.
Once again, you can see a ridiculously long video of the actual test here.
In the video, the larger Tovolo sphere is on the left, the Wintersmiths sphere is in the middle, and the smaller sphere made in a plastic mold is on the right. Both the Tovolo and smaller Japanese-mold spheres came out noticeably cloudy compared to the clear sphere made in the Wintersmiths device.
I didn't observe a significant difference between the melting behavior of the clear sphere versus the two cloudy spheres. In fact, the larger spheres made in the Tovolo molds lasted significantly longer than both of the smaller spheres. Clarity didn't seem to make much difference in melting time.
I will say, though, that there's less risk of the clear sphere breaking into funny shapes like this:
Cloudy ice spheres don't always break down the middle, but it happens sometimes due to cracks and air bubbles that form in the ice; that makes makes it less attractive to pour a second drink on them, as some people might want to do.
Here's what a clear sphere looks like after one cocktail:
It's pretty clear (ha) that the Wintersmiths Ice Baller works exactly as promised: it makes beautiful clear ice spheres reliably, quickly, and without much hassle. With that being said, it costs $75 more than the next-best option, the Tovolo molds, which make slower-melting spheres that are a little cloudy.
There's a good reason for the price difference: precisely-engineered double-wall stainless steel tumblers don't come cheap. But is the end result worth it? That's a question of personal preference.
Note: Testing sample provided for review consideration.