The Ice Age

by Naren Young

Photo courtesy of Isaac Rosenthal

It’s probably fair to say that when most of us started bartending, ice was just ice. You put it into a shaker (or a blender, like I did) and that was that. A finished drink came out the other side. Easy enough. Well how times have changed, and for anyone now entrenched in and enamored by the craft cocktail movement will know that ice has become both a sensitive issue to some, and a serious business to others.

We have seen in-depth seminars on ice at Tales of the Cocktail (and other bar shows), given by curious ice luminaries such as Don Lee, Alex Day and Dave Arnold. The results of some of their experiments at Tales of the Cocktail in 2008 were shocking to say the least, and yet rather enlightening in dispelling a few myths that many stubborn ice geeks had long held as gospel.

“Generally speaking there haven’t really been any major changes in terms of quality since the beginning of time,” says Lee. “Ice is, and always will be, ice. It's only with modern refrigeration that ice production begins to change. The two problems with modern ice are 1) thin ice, a.k.a. shell ice from a commercial ice machine and 2) cloudy ice from ice made in a freezer at home. Thin ice is an unfortunate consequence of needing to speed up the process and with larger cubes made at home the problem is that impurities and dissolved gasses get pushed to the center of the cube.”

At my current post, Saxon + Parole, we use some pretty sh!tty ice, or what some people call ‘cheater ice’ (a Kold-Draft machine is on the way). I see no problem shaking with this type of ice as long as the bartenders are preparing the drinks quickly and understand the importance in the proper sequence of building a round to avoid dilution. Without having to fork out a lot of money to buy a new Kold-Draft machine just to keep up with the Jones’, there are ways around your ice conundrum that can save you money while still providing ice that will wow people. And let’s be honest, besides all this banter about ‘dilution rates’ (some of it true, some of it nonsense), isn’t that much of the point in having beautiful ice anyway?

Ice porn? Believe it.

Let’s take Milk & Honey in New York as a perfect case study. They don’t even have an ice machine and never have. They simply freeze dozens of hotel pans full of ice every night and the next day before service, the bartenders carve it up into various shapes and sizes, with each one being used for different drinks: some for stirred libations, others for shaken ones; some for their Juleps, others for their Collins’. For anyone that’s been to Milk & Honey knows that it’s a small operation where this kind of ice ‘program’ can work and keeps their overheads low. It’s certainly not for everybody. Let’s call them the 1%.

But for the rest of us that don’t work in a modern speakeasy, where standing room is forbidden and customers don’t mind waiting 15 minutes for a perfect Sazerac (without ice of course), such luxuries simply don’t work. As I said though, there are ways around this. At Saxon + Parole, we get a shipment of large format block ice, cut to our exact specifications, which we then cut by hand, using an ice pick during service. It takes a little more time, sure, and it’s not pretty, but it works and people appreciate it.

We are a very high volume restaurant, where we can manage these little touches without affecting the flow of service. Perhaps many of you reading this work in a similar environment. So for a guest that has just ordered, say, a Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition, to get it in a crystal rocks glass with a hand carved piece of ice is impressive, right? Same goes if they order a Negroni, an Old Fashioned or a Van Winkle. We also have long ‘spears’ that come from a rubber mould, sold online for a measly $7 a pop from Cocktail Kingdom. We use this exclusively in our house Gin & Tonic, a simple drink that we’re very proud of. Of course I would love to use these in every highball we serve, but like I said, this is just not feasible in my particular venue. But it’s a small touch that customers love.

And isn’t that the whole point? To impress our guests and not one-up other bars in a pissing contest because you have seven types of ice but the bar down the road only has six. That is, until another bar opens up next door which has – oh sh!t! – eight types of ice (including one shipped in from Iceland). This can all get very expensive very quickly, especially if you invest in a Kold-Draft machine, a crushed or pebble ice machine, or like the good folks at Weather Up in New York have done – a Clinebell, which makes enormous slabs of ice over a three day period which are then scrupulously cut down with a chainsaw and various other expensive imported artisan implements. It’s impressive. Seriously, Google it.

“Block ice as it is traditionally found and harvested from frozen ponds grows organically in one direction so all impurities get pushed out and don't get trapped in the center,” continues Lee. “It's great that we now have more options than ever before but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that ice is just one component in a great drink or bar program. Big ice is great because it gives you the most flexibility but it doesn't automatically make a drink better.”

For Richie Boccato (a partner in Weather Up, Dutch Kills, Painkiller and all around nice guy), his infatuation with ice began during his time spent manning the bar at Milk & Honey and has led to the creation of Hundred Weight Ice, a company that delivers custom cut ice all over New York. In partnership with two of his deputies from Dutch Kills, Zach Gelnaw-Rubin and Ian Present, they are spreading the good word to an increasing number of bars, which in turn will have an adverse affect on their guests. We use these guys at Saxon + Parole, receiving one bulk delivery every week, where every night one of these beautiful cubes sits proudly, glistening, on the back bar.

“We came forth with Hundred Weight Ice with the intention of providing each and every bar and spirits producer within our midst the opportunity of serving a superior caliber of ice with their cocktails,” says Boccato. “We are confident that this in turn will improve the quality of everyone's drinks and perhaps it will even begin to change the way in which all of our colleagues decide to value ice as it ultimately pertains to their cocktails. Perhaps simply leasing, plugging in, and remaining dependent upon a factory-made machine to spit out warm ice will no longer be the accepted and sought-after industry standard. In essence, the goal here is to provide our patrons with excellence, even if it means risking our own digits (literally, and figuratively) in order to do so.” A noble crusade indeed.  

Like the sky and the sea from whence it came, ice is to be respected. Our goal as a global bartending community – whether you live in Moscow or Melbourne or Miami – should be to always strive to make better drinks, period. Whether that comes from using better spirits, fresh produce, improved technique, a rotovap machine, house made leather bitters, a Japanese bar spoon or amazing ice, then do whatever it takes to make that happen.