Cocktail ice is intensely scrutinized by some bar and restaurant operators and overlooked by others. But it’s a key component with paying more attention to, especially considering current drink trends and ice options available today, from planks and spheres to pebbles and spears.
Ice is as crucial a cocktail ingredient as the liquors or mixers, and should be an integral part of the drinks creation process, according to Micah Melton. “People are thinking craft everything—craft spirits, house-made syrups and bitters—and then to dump all of that onto a bad piece of ice seems like such a waste,” says Melton, the chef de cuisine of cocktails for The Aviary in Chicago.
The 130-seat cocktail bar’s ice program is undeniably ambitious: The Aviary offers 27 varieties of ice, ranging from crushed to hand-cut shards to spheres made with the Japanese Taisin mold. But any operator looking to ramp up the quality and variety of ice can start by recognizing its significance.
“Good ice can easily become an afterthought,” notes Melton. “[Bartenders] taste the drink before it goes into the glass and it tastes good; they don’t realize that bad-tasting ice or quickly melting ice can ruin a good drink fast.”
Ice, Ice Baby
The logistical first step is purchasing a good quality ice machine, which Melton notes “can bail out any bar in terms of ice.” Kold-Draft used to be the only game in town, but Hoshizaki is becoming a popular choice for its reliability, says Camper English, a cocktail writer and the force behind the cocktails-meets-science website Alcademics.com.
Kold-Draft produces cubes a little larger in size than Hoshizaki (1-¼” vs. 1″), but English and some bartenders say Kold-Draft machines tend to need servicing.
No matter the brand, quality ice machines produce dense, perfect cubes that keep cocktails chilled and look handsome in the glass. But certain types of ice may require that bartenders tweak their technique.
“You have to account for volume to surface area,” explains Michael Cerretani, beverage director for the 295-seat seasonal, farm-fresh restaurant Session Kitchen in Denver. High-quality machine cubes require more shaking and stirring, he notes. The Japanese hard-shake method is also known to get a drink icy cold, as is cracking the cubes before stirring or shaking, which produces more surface area.
Large spheres and cubes have less surface area than their smaller counterparts, rendering slower dilution. These are preferable for boozy drinks like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, as well as spirits served on the rocks.
Spheres and Spears
Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C., operated by the San Francisco-based Mina Group, offers 12 types of ice, including molds that produce spheres, 2″ x 2″ cubes, and spears. The 278-seat steakhouse also uses a Macallan Ice Baller, which, like the Taisin and Cocktail Kingdom’s Professional Ice Ball Maker, makes perfect spheres.
These tools make for a great drink presentation, says head bartender Duane Sylvestre, but it takes a few minutes to produce each orb, so the process is time consuming.
Sylvestre has noticed a growing trend in spear ice, those long, skinny rectangles that fit perfectly into a Collins glass. He uses either a 1-½” x 1-½” x 5″ mold, or freezes several Kold-Draft cubes together to render spear ice.
Bourbon Steak uses them in bottled cocktails such as the Susan Lucci ($15), with Maker’s Mark 46 bourbon, Crème de Pêche, citrus and berries, and the Piso Mojito ($17), a crystal-clear variant with Bacardi Heritage rum, fresh mint, clarified lime, Fever Tree soda and sugar.
The Aviary makes its spear ice by freezing water in the compartments of a rectangular tackle box, which is used for “Dealer’s Choice” cocktails ($20 each) in its 16-seat basement speakeasy The Office. The actual cocktail glass becomes the mold for invert shard ice, which takes advantage of the “negative space” that would typically surround conventional ice in the glass.
It works like this: A glass full of water is dropped into a super chiller, and removed before it freezes all the way through; the leftover water is discarded, and the ice takes on the form of the inside of the glass.
Invert shard ice is used for Aviary drinks like the Turista ($18), with rum, Chinotto, coconut and Viriana China-China liqueur.
Clearing up the Cloudiness
There is one inherent problem with using any type of mold—the cocktail ice will be cold, and shaped, but it won’t be clear, which is an aesthetic concern for some bars. Cloudiness in ice is caused by trapped air. Since the water in the center of a sphere or cube is the last to freeze, and water expands when it freezes, the centers of ice shapes become white and cracked.
As English has discovered and documented on his site, a workaround for this problem is to use the Lake Effect method, which takes advantage of the fact that water in a lake freezes from the top down. English suggests freezing water in rectangular plastic boxes placed in a cooler filled with water with the lid kept off.
When the ice is ready, remove the boxes, separate them from the surrounding ice, pop the ice out of the boxes, and shave off the bottom inch or so of cloudy ice. Operators can use this method for other shapes, too, as well to simply freeze water in the cooler directly to create clear ice blocks ready for hand carving.
Chip Off the Old Block
Cubes, spheres and spears are popular ice options, but these days, many bars are thinking bigger—in the form of large ice blocks that can be cut to order. The Aviary has a Clinebell machine, which produces two 250-lb. clear ice blocks in two and a half days.
The machine has a cold plate at the bottom, and a water circulator near the surface, which causes the water to freeze from the bottom up. Session Kitchen also has a Clinebell machine onsite, which produces 300-lb. blocks of ice from quadruple-filtered water that’s hand cut weekly by staff. Cerretani is partial to big, semi-misshapen chunks for the bar’s “conversation cocktails,” off-the-menu drinks that are custom created by discovering guest preferences.
Sylvestre notes that the time and space needed to produce ice—whether it’s hand carved or frozen in molds—as the one aspect that’s overlooked. “Many don’t understand what an ice program entails—you need to get or make the ice, and keep up with it.”
He also stresses the importance of maintaining dedicated space to keep ice, including storage behind the bar so that it’s close and readily available. Bourbon Steak has three freezers used solely for ice.
In particular, ice created from molds or hand carved needs some care, English says. He recommends wrapping ice in plastic wrap, and placing it in buckets in a dedicated freezer, to avoid imparting off aromas and flavors from food.
Ice-making equipment can be expensive, and requires upkeep and a large footprint, while hand carving ice takes space and time. But there are other options, such as buying specialty ice from a provider. “Ice companies are popping up, which equates to minimal work for operators,” Cerretani says.
New York’s Hundredweight Ice Company was the first to supply area bars with ice. Other outlets now serve busy bars nationwide with high-quality ice. Bartender Owen Thomson cofounded Washington, D.C.’s Favourite Ice Co. two years ago along with Joseph Ambrose. “We were both spending a lot of time cutting ice at our regular jobs, and realized that due to storage of equipment and the hazards of ice cutting, this type of ice was not readily available to many bartenders,” Thomson says.
Favourite Ice sells its ice to many Washington, D.C. operators, including José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup concepts, Derek Brown’s Columbia Room, Adam Bernbach’s 2 Birds 1 Stone, and Bourbon Steak.
Most popular are the standard 2″ cubes and the 1″ wide spears, which range from $.50 to $.80 per piece, depending on the volume ordered. Favourite Ice cuts the ice to match the glassware for each client, assuring a perfect fit.
Many custom ice providers are regional, but Gläce Luxury Ice Co. in Davis, CA, ships ice cubes and spheres anywhere in the U.S. Each piece is carved from the densest and clearest portion of a 300-lb. block, yielding 300 to 500 pieces, depending on the size and shape.
Each case includes 50 shapes, and pricing begins at $100 per case, not including shipping, which comes out to more than $2 a cocktail. Some Gläce customers list the ice along with the other cocktail ingredients to showcase it, or offer it as à la carte option for specialty whiskies, Scotches or Bourbons, the company says.
Do bar patrons care that much about the ice used in their drinks? Sylvestre, for one, has been seeing a heightened awareness. “People lift up their glasses, look at the ice, and make comparisons.”
Thomson contrasts the awareness among bartenders—who are more concerned with function—with that of guests, who are drawn more to the aesthetics and visual presentation. He uses the example of a $30 Scotch on the rocks served in a double Old Fashioned glass with one giant, crystal-clear ice sphere, vs. the same drink served over a big scoop of “hotel ice” cubes.
“Forgetting the tastes and decor,” Thomson notes, “where do you think you’re going to feel like someone treated your $30 Scotch with respect?”
The concept of craft ice is not yet on the radar of many guests at Session Kitchen, Cerretani says. But he thinks it offers another opportunity for bartenders. “Large-format ice sparks conversation, and gives you an opportunity to engage.”
English gets a kick out of watching those newbie guests with a cool cube or sphere inside their glasses. “The first time they see great ice, it’s adorable.”
Sidebar: Common Ice Mistakes
The best ice in the world won’t help your operation if bartenders aren’t using it properly in the shaker or glass. Cocktail expert Camper English has witnessed lots of ice faux pas in bars, including
Not stirring a drink long enough, and then straining it over one large cube.
Using ice that’s been sitting at room temperature,, which is too wet and dilutes a cocktail too quickly.
Adding ice to warm glassware or shakers right out of the dishwasher, which makes it melt too quickly, resulting in overdilution from adding more ice.
Overdoing crushed ice. For instance, crushed ice is a quintessential component of a well-made Mint Julep, English notes, but adding too much of it to a frozen cup does little for the drink. “It’s too cold to enjoy—you are basically just drinking bourbon.”