Inside the Obsessive World of Artisanal Cocktail Ice | CHRISTOPHER JONES 05.23.15. 6:25 AM

When Frederic Tudor, aka the “Ice King”, started his worldwide ice delivery service in the early 19th century—sailing massive blocks of as far as Europe and India—he probably didn’t realize he was launching an American obsession.

We shave it, crush it, cube it, and use finely-tuned machines to carve it into tiny pellets and cultivate 300-pound, crystal-clear blocks. We gnaw on snow cones and shaved ice, pack our soda cups to the rim, and slurp down Slushies 24-7 at the 7-11. We even take our tea and coffee on the rocks.

Now, bartenders across the land are staking their claim on ice, creating fancified cocktails where the frozen stuff takes a front seat.

“If you’re talking premium liquor, you expect premium glass and ice too,” says Andrew Bohrer, a longtime Seattle bartender and co-founder of the Washington State Bartender’s Guild.

This thirst for “premium ice” has resulted in a boom in boutique ice delivery services and specialized gear like the greaseless chainsaws and Japanese hand saws used to carve block ice. Of course, all of this specialized machinery and hands-on ice craft comes at a cost, and that’s where you, the customer, comes in. Bohrer estimates that an “ice program”—a phrase that he describes as a “terrible plague” in the bar business—adds about 60 to 80 cents to the cost of a drink. “That’s a pretty expensive ingredient,” he says.

Cloudy with a Chance of Whisky

As with diamonds, cocktail ice is judged by its clarity, density, size and cut, all of which add to the quality and aesthetics of the experience. As water freezes, air bubbles are trapped and eventually disperse inside the frozen mass to create a cloudy appearance. But if you slow the freezing process down, a lake effect sets in as air bubbles rise to the top or sides. The result is crystal-clear, dense ice, which is harder and colder than a typical ice cube. When you’re shaking and stirring drinks behind a bar, this is the ice you want.

Bohrer was one of the first bartenders to start slicing and dicing ice in the West Coast cocktail culture. In the early aughts he attended the Cocktail World Cup in New Zealand and watched a Japanese bartender carving a block of clear ice into a sphere in a matter of minutes—a party trick that’s commonplace in upscale Japanese bars. Before you could say blackberry bramble, he was back home carving up big blocks of ice with a chainsaw, and hand-carving spheres behind the bar for bemused bar patrons. When he brought his roadshow to San Francisco, it was game on at speakeasies and upscale eateries around the city. At about the same time, New York’s “artisanal ice” scene was kicking into gear at Richard Boccato’s Dutch Kills bar, and his affiliated Hundredweight Ice and Cocktail Services.

Nowadays, gonzo-sized cubes and spheres of ice can be found in barrooms across the country, along with the industrial-strength machines that crank them out.

Ice Cold Tech

The Clinebell Equipment Company builds a series of big-block ice machines, but the CB300X2E is its Bentley. The machine contains two 40-gallon chambers of water that are chilled from the bottom up, while pumps constantly circulate water on the top layer—a process that jettisons any bubbles and impurities from the block.

After three days of slow freezing, two giant 300-pound block of crystal-clear ice are born. At a price tag of six grand, though, very few bars have the means, much less the space to house this beast. Instead, they opt for ice delivery services, some of which will even carve up the product to order.

After the giant blocks are broken down into bar-ready chunks—be it spheres, extra-large cubes, or rectangular spears—they are used in spirit-heavy cocktails where the goal is to control and slow down dilution. An Old Fashioned, for instance, is often accompanied by an extra-large ice cube so you can taste every hint of oak and vanilla in that 10-year-old bourbon that’s costing you five bucks a sip. Martinis, too, demand minimal dilution, so bartenders will stir gin and vermouth with dense cubes for several minutes to get them to the right temperature.

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Inside the Obsessive World of Artisanal Cocktail Ice

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