Four hundred thousand years ago, give or take, our earliest ancestors domesticated fire, making it possible for future generations to enjoy all the benefits of cooked food, heated homes and multi-burner propane grills. Since then, we’ve been so enamored by fire that it wasn’t until relatively recently that anyone got around to thinking much about ice. And so Quest for Fire became a story for the ages, while Ice Run might only describe a typical Saturday night. But when it comes to the world of mixology, ice beats fire cold.
“Ice is really the cornerstone of the American bar,” says Chad Solomon, a New York-based cocktail consultant with Liquid Relations, and co-founder of Cuff & Buttons cocktail catering. Solomon is one of the growing number of bartenders across the country who are taking a fresh look at ice as not just a cocktail accessory, but an integral component of a well-made drink. Solomon credits Frederic Tudor—known as Boston’s “Ice King”—for creating both the supply and the demand for commercially distributed ice in early America. In the first half of the 19th century, Tudor approached hotel bars and fine drinking establishments with the idea of chilling their juleps, cobblers and punches; the result was a total transformation of the country’s drinking culture. “It was a quantum leap in terms of the enjoyment of mixed drinks by patrons,” Solomon says. “People were hooked almost immediately to the colder, more refreshing kinds of drinks.”
While less than 200 years separate Tudor’s icehouses from the rattle and crash of modern ice machines, much has happened to ice along the way—and for many contemporary bartenders, this hasn’t been entirely a good thing. The conditions under which early commercial ice was formed and harvested meant that bartenders often worked with ice that was firm and frigid, with little of the dissolved air or impurities that shorten ice’s life span; as a result, insulated blocks of this pond ice could last through the summer. Much of today’s machine-made ice, by contrast, is lighter and relatively warmer; it melts quickly, rendering drinks watery and insipid. But thanks to the work of dedicated bartenders, patrons once again are experiencing the quantum leap in quality that good ice can bring to a drink.
Thad Vogler, the barman behind Bar Agricole in San Francisco, compares using good ice in cocktails to upgrading your kitchen stove. “Say you’re working on a two-burner electric range, and all of a sudden someone gives you a six-burner industrial Wolf gas range. What you’d be able to do with heat is entirely different from what you’d ever imagined,” Vogler says. “It’s sort of what happens when you use good ice: Your job is to make things cold, and all of a sudden you have this tool that works so much better. It immediately raises a drink a couple of points on a scale of 1 to 10 when you use good ice.”
By freezing purified water in large blocks or custom molds, and by using ice from high-end machines, these bartenders are making drinks colder and with precisely the desired amount of dilution. And while the art of shaking or stirring drinks with custom ice is a field unto itself, perhaps nowhere is ice’s impact more evident than in the drinks that are served with ice as a component. From simple pours of whiskey on the rocks to elaborately swizzled punches, bartenders are acknowledging that ice is as important an ingredient to these drinks as any spirit or mixer. Once typically viewed as a simple filler in the glass, ice has become cool.
Short and Long
While wandering through Osaka one night in late 2006, Buffy Charlet and her friends decided to stop for a drink. They sat down at a tiny bar that served only whisky, placed their order, and were astounded by what was placed in front of them. “When the glasses came out, we thought it was just phenomenal,” says Charlet, a bartender at Ford’s Filling Station in Los Angeles. “The ice was in these big, perfect cubes; it was absolutely beautiful.”
Charlet and her friends cajoled the bartender into showing them the preparation: A large block of ice was brought out from a back room, and with a few precise maneuvers with a sword, he sliced flawless two-inch cubes from the block. “It fit perfectly in the glass, and they did that for each glass of whisky,” Charlet says. “I’ve never encountered anything like that since—and I’m a bartender.”
While swordplay is still blissfully rare behind American bars, several bartenders are taking their own stabs at crafting large, dense cubes for drinks served on the rocks. The aesthetics are certainly impressive, as Charlet would attest, but the reasons go beyond simple appearances. “Anything on the rocks—be it a simple whiskey or an Old Fashioned or something like a sour—you want to set that down in front of a guest at its absolute coldest, with a nice, large piece of ice that’s going to preserve the drink in its ideal balance of strong and weak,” Solomon says. “As the clock ticks, it’s going to be a totally different drink based on the size and density of the ice.”
Most cocktails are served “up,” without ice, and are meant to be consumed quickly, before they become unpleasantly tepid. Drinks served on the rocks, however, provide a chance to slow down. Perhaps the quintessential and most venerable rocks drink is the Old Fashioned, a mixture of bourbon or rye, sugar and bitters; excellent variations include versions made with aged rum or genever, a malty gin from the Netherlands, as well as the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, a tequila-and-mezcal approach served at Death & Company in New York. Other classics—such as the bitter, garnet-hued Negroni, the classic New Orleans Vieux Carré and the Whiskey Sour—are often served on ice, as are contemporary drinks such as Beretta’s simply named Cachaça Aperitif.
When served on the rocks, a drink can be lingered over and enjoyed as it develops in the glass. When the ice is of low quality, however, what often develops is a watery mess. Solomon estimates that, by using a single large piece of very cold, dense ice, a drink’s life expectancy—the time when it’s at peak quality—can be more than doubled. Vogler agrees. “A large piece of ice retains a lower temperature longer, and it’ll keep a drink colder longer, without turning it to water,” he says.
To reach cocktail perfection, bartenders are turning to the past, and to the best of modern technology. Solomon says that several years ago, while tending bar at New York’s Milk & Honey, he and owner Sasha Petraske, along with other bartenders, began experimenting with freezing large blocks of ice in industrial freezers, then custom-carving large chunks for individual drinks. While the process eventually proved burdensome and inefficient to do for every drink, some bars continue the practice for at least some drinks on their bar menus, such as the Whiskey Cocktail served at Slanted Door in San Francisco. Solomon and other New York bartenders have found satisfaction in special molds that produce perfect 2-inch cubes. For quality ice on a larger scale, ice machines from Kold-Draft—ones that produce dense, frigid, 1 1/4-inch cubes—have become standard equipment at some bars.
Skeptics may discount the role that larger, colder cubes of ice play in a drink, but when Charlet and her friends were served their whisky in Osaka in glasses with bespoke cubes, the effect was memorable. “The ice was what caught your eye, and you started to notice more the color of the whisky and the smell,” she says. “It was stripped down to basics, and it really focused you on the drink.”
Classic tall drinks, such as the tequila-based Paloma or the whiskey-based Presbyterian, along with the familiar Gin and Tonic, also need care in the ice department to prevent the delicate balance of flavors from collapsing into a diluted mess. Some bartenders address the issue with stacks of Kold-Draft cubes; this is the approach Vogler takes with his Agricole Mule, and that is used in drinks such as the Company Buck at Death & Company.
Other bars, such as Little Branch in New York, use long spears of ice that are shaped to the size of the glass. The spears can be carved from large blocks, but an easier and more efficient way to make them is to use customized molds. “The idea is that once the drink goes over ice in the glass, you just want one giant, solid piece of ice that touches the bottom of the glass,” Solomon says. “The fact that it’s solid instead of cubes means that the drink cannot attack the surface areas of the ice and make it break down. That single, solid spear is far more durable.”
But bigger is not always better. A rock or spear of ice can minimize dilution while providing a chilling base, but some drinks have flavors so strong or concentrated that they need additional dilution. These drinks call for a supremely icy chill, both to make the drink more refreshing but also to pace the rate of dilution, extending the life span of the drink.
Some of the first drinks to be iced were powerfully flavored slow-sippers, and bartenders used finely crushed or shaved ice to create the desired effect. The practice applies to long drinks, such as juleps, as well as to short drinks, such as smashes (basically a smaller julep) and brambles, including Vogler’s own Rangoon Gin Bramble. “You can sip a drink like a julep really slowly over time,” Vogler says. “It’s intense and concentrated and strong, and at the end of the drink it’s still palatable, but it’s softer because of the gradual dilution.”
One of the best examples of the benefits of crushed ice is the category of drinks known as swizzles. Typically served in tall chimney glasses that have been packed with crushed ice and gently agitated with a bar spoon or, more properly, a multi-branched lele twig from Martinique—the original swizzle stick—swizzles are intensely cold and richly flavored, not to mention a spectacular sight. “You get a cool effect where it chills down the glass and the whole thing freezes, with a strong frost standing out on the glass,” Vogler says. “The ice just won’t melt—it’s so packed in there that you have a critical coldness, and it melts very, very slowly.”
Usually made with robust rums and lime juice, and often employing flavorful bitters, syrups or liqueurs, swizzles are a product of the Caribbean. Perhaps the epitome of swizzledom is the Queen’s Park Swizzle, a fragrant, minty drink that originated at the Queen’s Park Hotel in Trinidad; in 1946, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron wrote that this drink was “the most delightful form of anesthesia given out today.”
Many of today’s swizzles are descendants of the Queen’s Park, such as the Twenty Seventy Swizzle served at Forbidden Island in Alameda, Calif. Bar owner Martin Cate explains that the powerful flavors of a swizzle’s ingredients mean the gradual dilution from crushed ice is a necessary component. “If you were to just stir these drinks with ice and strain into a cocktail glass, it’d be really rich, and just too much,” Cate says. “But swizzle it, and let it sit and look at it for five minutes, and it gets better and better. It has a long curve before it tastes watery.”
Tiki pioneers, such as Donn Beach and Trader Vic, were masters at applying the swizzle concept to a range of exotic drinks, and Cate uses their techniques in drinks served at his bar. Beach, for example, advocated flash-blending drinks—such as the Port-au-Prince and the Pearl Diver’s Punch—with crushed ice for a few seconds using a stand drink mixer (the type used to make milkshakes and blended coffee drinks), which resulted in a resolute coldness, a gentle and long-lasting dilution and a pebbly texture far removed from the slushy goop disgorged from industrial drink-mixing machines today. Cate replicates this technique using a drink mixer and small cubes of standard restaurant ice—“You put a Kold-Draft cube in a drink mixer, it’s like listening to a car accident,” he says—and says that the result is a cold drink that maintains its flavorful integrity without turning into a watery slurry.
For shaken drinks, such as a Mai Tai or Zombie, Cate uses a tip he learned while tending bar at Trader Vic’s: He combines both large cubes and crushed ice with the drink ingredients in a shaker. “It actually changes the texture of the drink to use different types of ice,” he explains. “The cubes give it more agitation and froth, and the crushed dilutes faster and chills, so you get that nice, icy frost on the outside of the glass.”
Professional bartenders have an arsenal of implements and machines that help them create the perfect ice for each drink, but similar feats can be accomplished at home (see sidebar on this page). While a few special tools may need to be purchased, the results will make the investment worthwhile. “The two things with ice in drinks is reduction in temperature and dilution. It depends on how much you want to invest to do those things well,” Vogler says. “Once you’ve used good ice, it’s really hard to go back.”