What Is Sonic Ice and How Is It Made? EXPLAINED

Sonic ice has become very popular and people love the smell pellets of ice that are soft and easy to chew. Made popular by the American chain of drive through restaurants this type of ice has amassed a cult-like following of people who will settle for nothing less than Sonic ice.

At home machines have even popped up allowing people to create Sonic ice at home or some people opt to buy bag of it from their local Sonic restaurant.

Sonic ice is so loved because of its soft chewable texture and the way it absorbs the flavor of the drink it is in. But what is Sonic ice exactly, and how is it made?

Sonic ice refers to ice that has been made from flaked ice that is compressed and broken into small pellet shaped ice cubes. This ice is also known as nugget ice or pellet ice but many call it Sonic ice after the restaurant chain started using it in their drinks. Sonic ice is less dense than regular ice which makes it easier to chew and allows it to adsorb the flavors of the drink it's in.

If you are a fan of Sonic ice and want to know if it’s possible to achieve at home or if you’ve only heard of Sonic ice and want to know what all the fuss is about, you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s take a deep dive into Sonic ice to discover how it’s made and why it has become so popular.

What Is Sonic Ice?

Sonic ice, as it has come to be known after being popularized by the Sonic fast food restaurant chain, is also referred to as nugget ice or pebble ice because of how small the cubes are compared to regular ice.

Not only are the cubes smaller in size, creating a larger surface area to volume ratio, but they are also less dense than regular ice due to how they are made.

Sonic ice is made using a nugget ice maker. These machines create flaked ice which is then compressed and pushed through tubes to get the small diameter of the ice. The ice is then broken into the small chunks or pebbles.

Because the ice is made of compressed flakes it is a lot less dense and hard when compared to regular ice meaning it can be chewed easier, melts faster and absorbs the flavors of the drink it's in a lot better due to the tiny cracks throughout the ice.

What this means for the consumer is a colder drink and ice that has a satisfying crumbling-crunch when chewed on. It also means the ice tastes delicious when it absorbs the flavor of your limeaide or other Sonic beverage.

What Is Sonic Ice Made Out Of?

Just like any ice, Sonic ice is made from water. While some speculate the ice has sugar in it (because it tastes so good) really it's just made from water.

But then what exactly is it that sets it apart from other forms of ice?

What gives Sonic ice its unique and desirable qualities is the process by which it is made. Sonic ice is made inside machines that take ice flakes and compresses them into solid blocks. This gives the ice a chewy crunchy texture and also a texture that absorbs the flavors of drinks better than regular ice – making it appear sweet.

What Is So Special About Sonic Ice?

If you've ever tried Sonic ice you'll know that this ice is special and offers a different experience than ice at other fast food chains or ice you might make at home.

Sonic ice perfectly fills the gap between crushed ice which melts too fast (and the chunks can be too big or hard), and regular ice which is not great to chew on.

Because it is softer than regular ice Sonic ice seems to absorb the beverage it’s in like a sponge. It derives this characteristic from the fact that Sonic ice is made by taking thin flakes of ice and compressing them together under high pressure until forming solid blocks.

Think of it like a firmly packed snowball you might make (and throw) in winter.

Ice made this way is less dense than normal ice which is why Sonic ice is also so easily chewable – one of its biggest selling points.

Sonic ice is also smaller than regular ice which means that more of its surface area is exposed to the drink it is floating in. Smaller ice cubes also means that more of them can fit inside the same drink.

More ice cubes with more exposed surface area also means that the ice will cool down the drink a lot faster than larger ice cubes. On a hot summers day by the time your drink gets to you in the drive thru it's already super cold and refreshing.

In case you were wondering, there are ways to make Sonic ice at home.

What Type of Ice Does Sonic Use?

The kind of ice you find at Sonic is called nugget ice. Nugget ice refers to ice that has been made in a process by which flakes of ice are compressed into solid pieces.

This ice is also referred to as pebble ice, soft ice, chewy ice and hospital ice – because hospitals sometimes use the same machines as Sonic to make ice chips that patients can chew on.

Click here to learn how to make nugget ice at home.

How Does Sonic Make Their Ice?

Sonic restaurants utilize specialized machines to churn out the crowd pleasing nugget ice it uses in the beverages they serve. Some people have even gone so far as to sleuth out the manufacturers of Sonics’ ice makers so they could purchase one for their home.

I found the process by which these machines are able to make the highly sought after style of ice, rather fascinating.

It all starts inside a metal cylinder which is surrounded by copper tubes that are filled with a refrigerant liquid. As the refrigerant flows around the outside of the cylinder the metal is cooled to below freezing temperatures.

Water is then sprayed onto the inside of the freezing cold cylinder where it solidifies in a thin sheet against the metal.

All the while there is a rotating auger inside the metal cylinder. The spiral shaped auger scrapes the ice from the inside wall of the cylinder as it turns, and like an Archimedes screw, the auger pushes the collected ice flakes up towards the top of the cylinder.

All the gathered shards of ice collect and become compressed at the top of the cylinder. The pressure causes the ice flakes to fuse together and forces a column of compressed ice flakes out through the nugget size openings at the top.

Below you can see a video about how the Opal Nugget Ice Maker works to make nugget ice just like Sonic ice and you can get an inside look at the ice being pushed out the top of the device. Sonic ice machines work just like this but at a larger scale.

A specialized mechanism then ensures that the emerging shafts of ice are broken into smaller bite size pieces which fall down a chute and into a collection bin, ready to be scooped up and into your Sonic slush.

The below video breaks this process down and shows you exactly how restaurant chains like Sonic make their nugget ice:

Why Is Sonic Ice So Different To Other Fast Food Chains

As we have been discussing, Sonic restaurants use machines that make nugget ice by compressing ice flakes. MacDonald’s and other restaurants have machines that use a different process to make their ice.

Most of the time these other machines will freeze the water omni-directionally i.e. from one direction. The generally do this by running water over a cold metal plate which freezes the water quickly into clear ice cubes.

This process ensures that dissolved gasses and impurities are expelled from the water as it freezes, leaving none behind to cloud the ice.

You might have noticed that bagged ice and the ice from other restaurants are clear instead of cloudy.

This is a consequence of being frozen omni-directionally. The resulting ice is much more dense than nugget ice and is therefore not good to chew on.

Compare this to Sonic ice which uses a machine that first creates flaked ice (like snow) and then compresses it into ice cubes.

This ice is completely cloudy and full of air bubbles and cracks making it super easy to chewy compared to clear ice and also making it absorb water better. Read more about clear ice vs cloudy ice.

Does Sonic Ice Have Sugar In It? Is It Sweetened?

Cherry Limeaide from Sonic (Image by Andy Melton)

Many people have assumed that Sonic Ice MUST have sugar in it given how sweet and delicious it seems to taste. However, this is not the case.

No, Sonic Ice does NOT contain any added sugar or sweeteners. People think it does because Sonic Ice has many cracks and impurities which allow it to absorb the flavor of the drink much better than regular ice. Sonic Slushes on the other hand DO have added sugar, even if no extra flavor is chosen.

I found proof of Sonic Ice not containing sugar by looking at their Nutritional Information page and I found that their unsweet ice tea (which contains a lot of Sonic Ice) has 0 grams of sugar.

You can see the details below:

Sonic slushes are the flagship of their menu and these drinks DO in fact contain sugar, even if you don't get any add-ins or toppings.

As you can see from their Nutritional Information page a plain slush with no syrup still contains 46 grams of sugar.

Why Is Sonic Ice So Soft?

Sonic ice is so soft compared to regular ice because it is far less dense than regular ice. The reason this is true is because Sonic ice did not freeze as one homogenous block like regular ice cubes do.

To achieve nugget ice like you get at Sonic restaurants you need to start with a mass of flaked ice, almost like snow. The flakes of ice are then compressed and forced through a narrow opening, creating small pebbles of compressed ice flakes.

Here is some further reading regarding soft ice vs hard ice.

Is Sonic Ice The Same As Nugget Ice?

Yes, the same way that a hoover is a vacuum cleaner, Sonic ice is nugget ice.

The Sonic chain of drive through restaurants uses nugget ice makers to achieve that specific style of ice they are known for. “Pellet ice” or “Hospital ice” is another term you might hear used to describe this type of ice.

To get Sonic ice at home you can purchase a machine like the Opal Nugget ice maker which will have you chewing on perfectly airy ice in fifteen minutes flat. There are also a variety of Opal Nugget Ice Maker Alternatives which can create nugget ice but tend to be cheaper than the Opal.

These machines are ideal but there are also other ways to make ice at home just like Sonic restaurants that don’t require you to fork out any cash. 

Is It OK To Eat Sonic Ice?

Yes, it's completely fine to eat Sonic Ice…that’s kind of the point.

The main reason why Sonic ice is such a fan favorite is the way the flaky texture both absorbs the beverage flavor and makes it soft enough to crunch safely between your teeth.

Sonic Ice is simply made from water so you can eat it to your hearts content. However, if you are having soda or other sugary drinks with your Sonic Ice you may want to limit consumption for health reasons.

If you are someone who absolutely LOVES Sonic Ice and wants to have access to it at home there are a variety of countertop nugget ice makers that create ice just like Sonic restaurants, but from the comfort of your own home (and for a lot cheaper).

Will Sonic Ice Damage Your Teeth?

No, Sonic ice or nugget ice is unlikely to damage your teeth when you chew on it. This is because it is made from compressed flakes of ice so it is less dense and less strong compared to regular ice (which can damage your teeth).

Clear ice is the one you want to watch out for if you have a habit of chewing on your ice. While clear ice does last longer than sonic ice, the reason this is true is because of how dense clear ice is. The extra density of clear ice versus Sonic ice is what makes clear ice unsafe to chew and potentially damaging to your teeth.

Can You Buy Bags of Sonic Ice?

Bag of Sonic Ice
Large Bag of Sonic Ice (Image by Laura Gilchrist)

Yes, you can buy 10 pound bags of sonic ice from selected sonic locations. It's not often something that is obvious on the menu (or even appears on the menu at all) but pretty much all stores are happy to sell you bags of ice if you request it.

If you are looking for large quantities of Sonic Ice you may need to plan ahead and talk to the store manager ahead of time and let them know when you'll be picking up the ice and how much you want. This way they can prepare enough ice for you and not run out of ice for their regular customers.

So even if you don’t have your own nugget ice maker at home there is no excuse for not having your favorite kind of ice at your next get-together.

In Summary

Sonic ice derives all its qualities by virtue of how it is produced inside of nugget ice maker machines. 

Compressing crushed ice into solid pebble-sized pellets is the magic formula for achieving that perfectly airy Sonic ice that soaks up your drink and is great to chew on.