Thinkstock

Cheers to keeping cocktails well-chilled.

Ice Age

Underline Image

No cocktail is complete without the perfect cube (or sphere, or wedge, or ...)

By Jen Karetnick December 2015 Spirits

There was a time when chipped ice was reserved for highbrow balls or haughty Hollywood sets featuring debutantes, mobsters, or the Victorian aristocracy. Now the craft cocktail movement and its populist overtones have brought the elevation of cocktail ice to a fever pitch. Custom, artisanal ice is an enormous trend, and beverage directors and mixologists are taking advantage of this latest element to add verve to their cocktail programs in more and more unique ways.

Premium ice cubes began to attract national attention just after the Millennium. This premium ice is commonly created from on-site mold machines like the Hoshizaki, which make perfect 1.25-inch by 1.25-inch cubes, or the more pricey Clinebell, which takes three days to freeze a 300-pound hunk of ice of the sort generally used for creating a dramatic feature to chip in the front of the house. The production process also results in notably slow-melting (and therefore, slow-diluting) ice.

The Clinebell produces especially clear ice, thanks to a process that freezes the water from the bottom up. The cooling air is also circulated, which bursts any bubbles that might form while the ice sets. Suppliers take these giant chunks and break them down by handsaw into cubes or spheres to sell to restaurant, lounge, and bar managers who desire larger cubes that take longer to melt. Today, nearly two-dozen companies, including PDX Ice in Portland, Oregon, and Favourite Ice in Washington, D.C., are well-known distributors.

But lucent ice is only the tip of the trend. Starting in 2013, Chicago’s Just
Ice began freezing flowers in blocks of water. Likewise, at Power House in Hollywood, California, Mike Chung suspends an edible orchid in an ice sphere as a centerpiece garnish for his picturesque cocktail, aptly named The White Orchid. Once the ice melts, the flower’s delicate flavor allows the combination of Tito’s vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, yuzu, and white cranberry syrup “to evolve,” Chung says, as well as “slowly exposing the flower for a visually pleasing transformation.”

In 2014, the Beyond Zero Ice Maker, introduced at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago, proved that you can also turn liquor and wine into a product that won’t dilute a cocktail as it melts—which means no more stigma to adding ice to your wine.

The same holds true for other flavors, such as coffee and tea. At Urban Farmer Steakhouse in Portland, Oregon, the staff highlights local vendors such as Stumptown Coffee to make balls of coffee ice, over which the Café Pepe cocktail (Vida Mezcal, Averna Amaro, and Drambuie) is strained. In Denver, Colorado, the Kizaki brothers cool their green tea cocktails at Sushi Den, Izakaya Den, and soon, their third restaurant OTOTO, with cubes of frozen green tea, which they say adds another layer of depth.

Indeed, it didn’t take long for restaurateurs to figure out that flavored cubes and spheres not only deposit extra flavors but also look more appealing. Kim Haassarud, mixologist for Omni Hotels & Resorts, notes that while spherical ice cubes that range from an inch to two inches are ideal for preserving the aromatics in all-alcohol, stirred cocktails, “fruit cubes are great for visual aspects in a drink. Ice cubes made with fruit pieces in clear cocktails like gin and tonics makes them pop.”

Still, Haassarud is not one to ignore the finer points of crushed ice, which is particularly well-suited for mojitos or herbed cocktails. Not only does it keep your beverage cold, she notes, “but [the ice] also serves as a strainer so herbs like mint or rosemary don’t get in your teeth.”

Other programs are forgoing adding herbs directly to drinks, however, and putting them in ice instead. For instance, COYA, located in Miami, Florida, and London, England, makes its Collins ice cubes with different herbs and vegetables such as celery to make better use of the element.

Also in Miami, Modern Garden offers Le Botaniste, made from Botanist gin, yellow chartreuse, sage, and botanical cubes—an idea that was born from the inspiration behind the restaurant itself, says mixologist Attila Kocsis. And at nearby Elcielo, an even more innovative ice method is on the menu: a Mojito Ice Ball with the rum, mint, elderflower, and seasonal flower cocktail contained within the thin sphere of ice itself. The cocktail must be broken with the tap of a hammer at service.

Customer interaction is the latest facet propelling the movement, and that includes some methods that surprise even the mixologists themselves. At Kuro in the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood in Florida, where the ice program is six tiered, Jared Boller says, “We have a few cubes that I’ve never seen before in a bar–the cylinder and the ice cap, both of which create fun effects in the cocktail. The ice cap allows us to top the cocktail and ‘break the ice’ tableside for an interactive experience. With the cylinder, with a proper pour, the guest cannot see that it’s in the glass until [he] takes a sip.” Boller adds that the cap is also sometimes painted for additional effect.

Other restaurants, such as Urban Steakhouse’s sibling in Cleveland, Ohio, and Pinewood Social in Nashville, Tennessee, are placing gigantic blocks of Clinebell ice so that the customers can watch the bartenders chip, hack, and crush their drink ice to order. For that, the bartenders must not only know how to mix, muddle, shake, and swizzle, they need to be proficient with a few sharp tools as well. Pinewood Social’s beverage director Matt Tocco says the staff there is using a chainsaw, a serrated knife, a cleaver, and ice picks.

Finally, mixologists have also discovered ways of smoking ice, whether it’s by melting it in a smoker and refreezing it, the way Laurelhurt Market in Portland, Oregon, does for the shards in its Smoke Signals cocktails, or by blowing smoke into the glass first so that it interacts with the ice. At the Robusto Room, an “elevated” cigar bar in Denver, the bartenders use a handheld food smoker called The Smoking Gun to tent the Mason jar in which they pour the Fire & Rye cocktail.

You may suspect, of course, that sipping frozen smoke could mean that the ice trend has reached its zenith. But as Kuro’s Boller says, “Chefs use fire, bartenders use ice.” And that means, just as with all manner of cooked food, the possibilities with chilled cocktails are virtually limitless.