How to Build the Ultimate Cooler

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor

Photo credit: © StockFood / Food and Drink Photos / Childs, Gary

“Nothing ruins a party more than a lukewarm beer,” says Bon Appetit Restaurant and Drinks Editor Andrew Knowlton. “I can deal with bagged potato salad and overcooked hot dogs, but if you don’t have any ice or cold beverages, I’m out the door. If I wanted lukewarm beer I would have gone to grocery store and sat on the curb drinking it.”

Knowlton says that the BA team breaks out the cooler every Friday during the summer. So “we’ve become pro packers.” Here are his tips.

Think outside the (ice)box. “I don’t even bother with trying to chill stuff in a fridge anymore,” says Knowlton. Just use the cooler for drinks, at all times. “That way, you’re not taking up precious real estate in the fridge. Coolers don’t just have to be for outdoor parties; it’s an indoor thing just as well.

Pack your cooler a good two hours before guests arrive. “Anything less than that and you take the chance of top beers being lukewarm. That will kill the buzz of any party.

Bagged ice is best. “Never use the ice in your fridge to do a cooler, because when it’s time to make a cocktail, you don’t have any ice,” says Knowlton. “The stuff you get at the grocery store or bodega is really hard and really cold, and it’s that nice in-between size that’s not too big but small enough that you can get down the crevices between cans.” Plus, “it’s comforting to see those gas station ice cubes in there.” Two bags is enough for most coolers, he says, but always get more than you think you need.

Layering is key. Despite what some of his colleagues say, Knowlton believes that beer cans should always go down first—not ice. “That way, the cans are level—there are no bumps—and you can can line them all up on their sides like ammo.” Otherwise, uneven layer of ice cubes “screw up the rest of the plan.” From there, it’s one ice layer, then drinks. Another ice layer, then drinks. And on and on until your cooler is packed.

Cans on bottom, wine on top. Cans on the bottom help hold the foundation of the cooler plan. Then go for glass beer bottles. Then “wine on top because, traditionally, it shouldn’t be as cold as your beer.”

Just add water. “Once you have all that ice layered and your cooler’s pretty packed, take one pitcher of cold water and pour it on top,” says Knowlton. “That’s usually enough to get it really cold and chilly. You’re looking for a slush.” Make sure your cooler has a spout so you can empty water easily as the ice melts.

Have a back-up plan. “If you’re having a rager, either have two coolers or an extra fridge in the garage with chilled beers on deck for the cooler.” If you’re not lucky enough to have an extra fridge or cooler, “sometimes I’ll just use the sink.”

Finally, always have an alternative source for ice. “Don’t let people think that the only ice they have is the stuff in the cooler,” says Knowlton. “All those cans are dirty and there are hands going in and out of there. I see people do that at parties: reach in and get ice for cocktails. That’s when you know someone should be cut off.”