There exists a universal drinking experience for millennials of a certain age. You unwrap a gift or pull back your sheets or simply turn around and see the frosty bottle with its red label. It’s a Smirnoff Ice, and once you lay eyes on it, it’s only a matter of seconds before you’re taking a knee and the malt liquor is flowing down your throat. Sometimes the ritual is done with glee, other times in abject horror, but it is a challenge that we have been trained to accept no matter what. We respect the act of Icing.
What started in 2010 as a frat house prank soon made its way into the national zeitgeist, an act performed at parties and weddings, in offices and on the street, and it’s even finding new life with of-age Gen Zers thanks to TikTok. Despite the drinking game’s persistence, it’s something that Smirnoff still tries to distance itself from so as to not encourage binge drinking—before an interview with brand reps for this story I was specifically told not to mention Icing at all. But as Smirnoff Ice celebrates its 21st year (yes, a Smirnoff Ice is now old enough to get legally Iced), it’s near impossible to separate the drink from the game it inspired.
The rules of icing are simple: If you lay eyes on a Smirnoff Ice that has been hidden or otherwise placed for you to find it, you have to kneel and chug the whole thing. The only way you can get out of it is with an Ice Block: If you have a Smirnoff Ice on your person when presented with another bottle, the person who tried to Ice you now has to down both drinks themselves. If you don’t have your own bottle and refuse to drink the one you find, you’re basically dead to your bros.
The appeal of the game? There’s the opportunity to get creative with your delivery, the high of being prepared and turning the attack onto the attacker. And like so many games, it’s just a little something to make you and your friends laugh with the possibility of getting buzzed.
A YouTube video from June 2010 called “How to Ice a Bro” outlines the process. In it one bro waits until after the mailman drops the mail to another bro’s house then slides the Smirnoff Ice into the mailbox before calling his bro telling him to check for a delivery, bro. Without skipping a beat, that bro takes a knee and chugs away, proving his true bro-ness. It’s one of the earliest recordings still on the internet of an Icing, coming out around the same time as coverage of the game in The Village Voice, CBS News, and The New York Times.
The rules of Icing were made official in the spring of 2010 when members of Pi Kappa Alpha at the College of Charleston in South Carolina emailed BroBible.com the two key steps. (Most of the sources are anonymous in this early coverage because these were college students trying to enter the workforce without “famous Smirnoff Ice chugger” showing up during a background check. Several folks I reached out to for this piece declined to speak on the record for similar reasons.) From there, those same frat brothers started the short-lived site BrosIcingBros.com where they collected images of, well, bros icing bros. That led to more memification with the now defunct Tumblr You Got Iced and IceAshton.com, a website encouraging people to Ice Ashton Kutcher.
At the 2010 Webby Awards, life imitated art when, according to The Village Voice, Foursquare founder Naveen Selvadurai unsuccessfully attempted to Ice Buzz Aldrin. Within just a few months, Icing grew out of the frat house and into a phenomenon.
Nearly a decade before alcoholic seltzers would become the trendiest booze on the market, Smirnoff Ice, which embodies many of those now-popular seltzer’s qualities, was chosen for this challenge because people didn’t think it was very good. Foster Kamer of The Village Voice called it “The Only Malt Liquor Drink Worse Than Spilled BP Oil Swept Out of The Ocean.” And in a very gendered, extremely 2010 explanation of the game, the staff of the University of Central Florida’s newspaper Knight News called Smirnoff Ice a “girly beverage” that “many men find taste disgusting,” hence the “bro” classification. (Little did they know, some women and nonbinary folks also hate the taste! We can Ice and be Iced, too! We showed them!)
At the time, there was speculation that Smirnoff itself was really behind the viral trend, trying to boost sales of Ices a decade into their existence. Jim Edwards of CBS News noted that at the onset of Icing’s popularity, Smirnoff’s Facebook page posted cryptic statuses that could be tied to the game, like “This summer Smirnoff Ice could crash your party” and “This summer, uncap the unexpected.”
In 2019 Smirnoff introduced a similarly suspect campaign. The Cremsiffino (an anagram of Smirnoff Ice) gift box was labeled as a luxury brand wooden hanger on the outside. On the inside? A Smirnoff Ice. The idea was to send these “gifts” to friends so they would unexpectedly unwrap a bottle of the beverage. Last year’s Cremsiffino gift was a festive puzzle that revealed a secret Smirnoff Ice in the image once it was assembled. That’s a lot of surprise Smirnoff Ices from a company that refuses to talk about Icing . . .
Because the execs refuse to talk about it, it’s hard to know exactly how Icing may have affected Smirnoff’s bottom line. But anecdotally, this definitely caused the product to reach new audiences. “Guys who would never buy Smirnoff before are even buying it now to shield against attacks,” one college junior told The New York Times in 2010. And based on the popularity of TikTok videos highlighting the trend—the hashtag #smirnofficechallenge has more than 36 million views—Smirnoff certainly can’t be hurting.
I’ve witnessed a lot of Icing in my day (my college boyfriend was in a fraternity right around the time the whole thing started, so you can imagine), but one of the most memorable for me was at a holiday party in 2011. Some friends and I did a secret Santa and not one, but two of those gifts were just six-packs of Smirnoff Ice, waiting to be chugged. However that’s nothing compared to some of the stories shared with me via Twitter (and I can’t wait to hear about your wildest Icings in the comments).
“The first I can remember is when we all went camping when we were like, 23. They would hide them under pillows and stuff and like right before bed you’d find it and have to get down on a knee and chug,” Nick Brennan wrote me in a DM. “These people literally work for the state department now.”
“We iced everyone at our wedding & at the bachelorette and bachelor parties. It was in 2016! My husband made everyone hike to the top of a mountain and then iced them when they reached the summit. It was hilarious,” Bunny McFadden wrote. “It’s kind of a ‘bro’ tradition but we’ve had a lot of fun pranking each other. We lived in Europe for a little while and they looked at us like we had three heads when we tried to explain it.”
“My band was playing a show once and someone removed the microphone from the stand when my back was turned and replaced it with a bottle of Ice, so I took a knee and chugged mid-set,” my friend Luca Cimarusti wrote me in an email, just one of many wild incidents he experienced personally. He and his friends were early adopters of Icing and “really pushed it to the limit immediately.” At the time one friend in particular, Andrew, brought it into his workplace, Piece Pizza in Chicago, hiding Smirnoff Ices in the pizza ovens, toppings containers, and more, forcing the other cooks to chug Ices on the clock.
“I was frequently Andrew’s Ice target, and this one time he took an empty Piece growler and filled it with Smirnoff Ice and printed out a giant custom Ice label and sprung it on me in an attempt to watch me lower to my knee and chug 64 fluid ounces of sweetened malt liquor at a backyard party,” Cimarusti said. “Lucky for me, we had also really gotten into the deep rules of the game, and I knew about something called the ‘Ice Block’ . . . I had an Ice in my pocket, so it wound up being Andrew who was trying to drink the growler (he didn’t make it very far).”
Almost just as soon as it was started, BrosIcingBros.com shuttered. At the time The Village Voice speculated as to why—there was too much backlash, Smirnoff Ice threatened legal action, they wanted to go out on top—ultimately reporting that the bros tried to sell out to some other bros, asking for five figures from sites like BroBible.com. Back then the Bro Bible bros said they wouldn’t pay more than five cases of Smirnoff Ice for the site, but considering the plea to bring back Icing made on the site earlier this year, maybe they regret not scooping it up when they had the chance.
But the disappearance of that single online presence certainly hasn’t stopped Icing from persisting. And if Smirnoff really isn’t in on it, the company sure is doing a bad job of trying to slow things down. Sure, many of the updates to the Smirnoff Ice branding and packaging appear to be an attempt to ride the high of our current hard seltzer moment. But the recent canned options, not to mention new flavors like margarita, mango, and now spicy tamarind, are just making it easier and easier to chug these things. Plus with TikTok still holding our attention and driving trends, people are only going to get more creative with their Icing attacks.
More than a decade after its inception, just in time for Smirnoff Ice’s 21st birthday, it seems that Icing is becoming more exciting and delicious than ever before. Yes, it’s very silly. Yes, it’s very juvenile. But if asking a friend to chug 12 ounces of a low-ABV seltzer brings us just a little joy, we should keep that joy going. Responsibly, of course.