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Bartenders are experimenting with ice shape, flavor, and sourcing.

The Artisanal Cocktail Trend Includes Ice, Too

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A key component to almost every cocktail, ice is worthy of a thoughtful touch.
By Barney Wolf August 2018 Spirits

With so much focus on the spirits, juices, herbs, and spices in creating a cocktail, it’s easy to lose sight of one of a drink’s essential ingredients: ice. This modicum of frozen liquid—formed into a cube or sphere, cracked, crushed, or as part of a slush—can easily make or break any cocktail.

“I’ve always believed it was the metronome to the life of a cocktail,” says Eric Alperin, co-owner of Los Angeles-based Penny Pound Ice—a company born out of 213 Hospitality’s need to cut ice more effectively for its bars. “It’s the bartender’s flame,” Alperin says.

“Even if it’s only used in shaking, it matters,” says Justin Beatty, beverage manager at Alma Cocina in Atlanta. “It impacts how the drink looks and feels.”

For an increasing number of bartenders, ice is part of the overall artisanal cocktail trend putting a premium on purity, authenticity, and tradition. And, to take the trend a step further, ice is something that can be flavored and manipulated as a functional element of a cocktail, too, adding depth as it melts.

Pure Ice

Penny Pound’s ice echoes the type that was cut from naturally frozen northern ponds and lakes during the 19th century. The ice is a hard, dense, low-mineral product. “You want that kind of ice that slowly integrates in a cocktail in a glass that will be at 98.6 degrees in the hand [of a customer],” Alperin says. He points out that most ice made today is frozen quickly and contains plenty of air that weakens the molecular structure. Using machines that mimic natural freezing, Penny Pound creates 300-pound blocks of ice made of charcoal-filtered water—bubbled to help eliminate air and minerals—over three to five days. The ice is then sawed into specific sizes and shapes like stones, spears, and rocks, among others.  Because of the way Penny Pound ice is made and the size of the cubes, it maintains colder temperatures in a cocktail, resulting in less melting and watering down of a drink, Alperin says. “Guests can definitely taste and see the difference in their hand.”

A Canadian company goes a step further in providing authenticity: ice formed 10,000 years ago that breaks away from an Arctic ice shelf to become an iceberg. [Actual] Iceberg harvests melting icebergs off the Newfoundland coast. “It takes a year and a half for them to get here, and they’re only a tiny fraction of the size when they started,” says Michael Didham, partner in the start-up that received significant interest at several trade shows this year. The ice “is exceptionally pure—it’s pre-pollution—and has a very low mineral count,” he says. “It’s slow-melting and has natural effervescence. When the ice cracks, it really pops. This is literally ice age ice.”

Functional ice

While many mixologists focus on the clarity of ice, some are looking at other characteristics and uses, such as creating cubes infused with ingredients that are released as it melts. That includes Arun’s Thai Restaurant in Chicago. “Functionality is something I’ve worked on,” says Michael Dziedzic, beverage director. “Everyone is so focused on clarity; I thought, ‘Why not make the ice a more intricate component?’”

He began by creating a three-layer 2-by-2–inch cube for an Old-Fashioned. The bottom layer is pure ice and the other two have ingredients like cherry juice, simple syrup, bitters, oranges, and water for freezing. “Bourbon is poured over the ice, and that’s cracked in half,” allowing the flavors to melt out.

The recent Franny Smith cocktail has an ice cube made over a period of six hours with equal parts Frangelico hazelnut liqueur and water atop a regular ice cube. Dry cider is added, a chip is made in the cube, and a mixture of cinnamon syrup, amaro, rum, and bitters is poured on top. Guests stir this with a cinnamon stick to help dissolve the ice.

Alma Cocina’s Tequila Cubes cocktails were created as a way to point out the essences of tequila. “We use the cubes to complement the tequila,” Beatty says, and to make the spirit more approachable to people whose knowledge of the liquor is often restricted to its inclusion in margaritas. Of course, margaritas require ice, too, either on the rocks or as a frozen slush. In each of three Cube cocktails, a specific tequila is paired with a 2-by-2–inch cube that contains various ingredients. The most popular is the Reposado, which features FGR Herradura Double Reposado tequila with an ice cube infused with passion fruit, mango, agave, blood orange, vanilla, and guajillo chili. “The sweetness of the fruit and the heat of the chili really wakes up the tequila,” he says.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s Boatyard restaurant was looking for a way to keep a martini cold, especially when served on its large patio, and came up with a watermelon martini that has a large ice cube made with fresh watermelon puree. “As the ice cube melts, the watermelon puree becomes part of the drink, so it continues to not only keep the flavor but becomes more intense,” says Aaron Abramoff, director of operations. The texture changes, too. “You feel those pieces of watermelon as it melts.”

Boatyard’s Sun Kissed cocktail also features functional ice. It’s a mix of vodka, Aperol, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, and an ice cube containing a purple and white edible orchid, Abramoff says.

And Boatyard’s sister restaurant Rooftop @ 1WLO—also in Fort Lauderdale—serves an Old Fashioned in a large beaker–shaped glass, adding smoke, and fashioning a 2-and-a-half–inch sphere ice cube as a stopper. “It’s quite visual,” Abramoff says.