Bartenders and drink historians and cocktail obsessives think about ice all the time, a strange pastime unless you frequent food blogs and read glossy food and drink magazines. Those sources and sites stoke a high-level ice obsession: smoked ice, hollow ice, ice prized for its perfect clarity, and ice hand-carved from giant blocks produced by machines that cost more than my car. (Just kidding: I don’t have a car.)
There are only a few times I think about ice.
I think about ice when I’m hosting a party and I have to run to the corner store to buy a bag of it. Invariably, the cubes have clumped together into a giant mass, and I have to stomp on the bag to break it up. Artisanal foot-ice, I call it.
I think about ice vis-à-vis the grandmotherly implications of plopping a few cubes in a glass of rosé when it’s hot outside.
I think about ice when I reach into the freezer only to find that the ice trays are filled with crusted-over cubes of frozen pesto, the long-forgotten results of a roommate’s flirtation with a Lifehacker article.
I think about ice when I start to worry about how Jon Snow is really doing.
I imagine you’re like me, an ice dabbler at best, but ice obsession is an established phenomenon in the cocktail world. It’s a preoccupation that reaches both into booze’s past and into its experimental, sci-fi future.
Ice think therefore ice am
High-end cocktail bars spend a lot of time trying to replicate drinks that your average 19th-century sot took for granted. The methods used by bartenders in those days have little in common with your average present-day dive bar booze-slinger. Former Oregon Bartenders Guild president Dave Shenaut, who currently manages the bar at Portland’s Raven & Rose, ticks off a list of reasons for the cocktail’s 20th-century decline: rapid industrialization, mass production of booze and other bar ingredients, and the rise of processed food. The final death knell came in the 1980s, when calorie-counting, convenience-happy patrons didn’t care a whit for interesting drinks. From a bartending standpoint, it was “vodka and four cans of mixers,” he says morosely.
Over the past 15 years or so, though, “bartenders started looking at every element of the cocktail,” explains bartender Sean Hoard of Portland’s Teardrop Lounge. That includes small-batch booze, fresh-squeezed juice, hand-crafted bitters and syrups, and all the tricks and techniques that would have made up an old-time bartender’s arsenal. But the least obvious return has been a specialized kind of ice.
If you’ve got ice cubes in your freezer, pull one out and take a look. More than likely, it’s got a cloudy, feathered center. This cloudiness is caused by a few things, most notably impurities in your water and air bubbles trapped in the cube. They gather toward the center because ice freezes directionally: That is to say, if cold is applied to the surface of a body of water, the water will freeze from the top down. As ice crystals form, impurities and air bubbles are forced downward. In an ice tray, those bubbles are sealed in, creating an ice cube that’s clear on top and cloudy toward the middle.
That appearance doesn’t match a cocktail’s aesthetic. It’s inconsistent and uncontrollable and makes the ice melt too quickly. There are solutions, if you’re willing to dive into the wonky world of clear-ice aficionados.
“Exactly when and where ice first hit glass is impossible to say,” writes New York Times critic William Grimes in Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail. Ice was certainly used in some early drink preparations, but a turning point came in the 1830s with the invention of the ice plow. The plow allowed bulk ice to be harvested from lakes and ponds, and led to commercial availability of ice. (Manufacturing “edible” ice on a grand scale took til the 1930s.)
In his James Beard Award-winning Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, David Wondrich writes that in the 1830s, “ordinary people started getting used to the stuff, expecting it, calling for it in their drinks. Suddenly the bartending game was entirely transformed.” By 1862, when Jerry Thomas published the first American cocktail guide, How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant’s Companion, “his book and all its imitators called for ice in all forms,” Grimes writes. Cobblers, swings, swizzles, and more entered the scene — a whole world of drinks with funny names that were tossed and shaken and served over ice.
The tools of the bartender’s trade evolved accordingly. Cocktail shakers came onto the scene as early as the 1840s, Wondrich writes. Straws made an appearance, important for preventing ice cubes from clinking against teeth pitted by 19th-century oral hygiene. Julep strainers were another concession to old-timey tooth decay: Essentially a slotted spoon that fit to the lid of a drinking glass, they were reportedly designed to keep the ice in a julep from coming into contact with the drinker’s teeth.
On the bartop at Riffle, a Portland bar widely acknowledged to have the best “ice program” in town, bar manager Brandon Josie has one of the most esoteric ice-related tools: an honest-to-god swizzle stick. No, not one of the plastic novelty things most frequently seen adorned with tiny testicles at bachelorette parties, but a branch of the Quararibea turbinata, or “swizzlestick tree,” a tree native to the Caribbean.
Strictly speaking, a swizzle stick is a long, thin branch with tiny spokes radiating out from one end. Ingredients are placed in a glass along with crushed ice, and the drink is “swizzled” by placing the spiky end in the glass and rolling the stick rapidly between the palms, like trying to start a fire in Girl Scouts.
The drink is sufficiently mixed when the glass is so cold it develops a layer of frost on the outside — an old-timey piece of cocktail lore that’s being revisited in serious cocktail bars across the country.
This distinctly low-tech trick is increasingly being complemented by a very high-tech alternative: absolutely clear ice.
The aforementioned air bubbles can be eliminated in high-end ice machines: Water is kept in circulation as it freezes, to prevent impurities from freezing into the ice block. The result is clear, flaw-free ice. A perfectly translucent ice cube looks prettier than a cloudy one, but there’s more to it than that. The lack of air bubbles and fissures within it makes pure ice denser, which in turns lets it melt more slowly. This allows bartenders to more precisely control how their mixed drinks “age” during the time they are drunk. A single large, clear cube will melt much more slowly than a handful of standard ice cubes — a better bet if you’ve got a shot of nice whiskey you don’t want to water down too fast.
At Riffle, Brandon Josie wrangles his ice from a Clinebell, a customized, top-of-the-line machine that produces 300-pound blocks of ice. Staffers chainsaw giant blocks into more manageable hunks, which Josie then hand-carves into cubes and tall spears.
The Teardrop Lounge’s bar ice comes from a Kold-Draft machine, which freezes ice in individual “cells,” producing clear one-inch cubes. The cubes are perfectly uniform, and the bar’s top-notch bartenders are well versed in how long to shake a drink and how vigorously to stir, when to crack an ice cube, and when to serve it whole in the middle of a drink to slowly melt. “As geeky as we get,” Sean says, “the drinks still have to be beautiful and delicious.”
Most of us don’t have the cash to shell out for a custom ice cube machine, but that doesn’t mean the ice plutocrats and their $15,000 Clinebells have a monopoly on the clear stuff.
Google “clear ice” for a minute, and Camper English’s name pops up. A San Francisco-based cocktail columnist who maintains the popular Web site Alcademics, he’s written extensively about how to make clear ice in the home without the benefit of a super-spendy ice machine.
“I had heard a lot of rumors and hearsay about how to make clear ice,” English says. “A lot of it sounded like a lot of hooey, to be honest. Things like ‘use boiling water to make ice, leave the ice out until it turns into water, and then freeze it again.’ That was one of the things that I replicated at home, and I would do the same thing like 13 times, take a picture of the ice at each round, and it showed that the ice wasn’t getting clearer each time. I decided to take a more scientific approach to the problem, and confirm or deny all of the rumors about how to make clear ice. And I then ended up developing a method of doing it.”
In trying to make clear ice, English “realized something really obvious about how ice freezes.” After making ice in containers of various sizes, he noticed that regardless of the shape of the container, the cloudiness in any piece of ice was always in the center. He explains, “That lit the light bulb that the direction that ice freezes is important, and if one could control the direction that ice freezes, one could make clear ice wherever you want it.”
English used that insight to develop an approach appropriate for the home. “My method is just to fill up an insulated cooler with regular water and let it freeze with the top off — that way ice is only forming from the top of the cooler toward the bottom, and the last part to freeze is where any trapped air or impurities are, so the first 75% or so of your ice will be beautiful and clear.” He then chops off the cloudy portion at the bottom, and is left with a large, clear chunk of ice he can break down into cubes.
“It makes it more beautiful, and that’s a huge part of what makes us like drinks,” English says, explaining his fascination with ice. It’s true “whether it’s crazy tiki garnishes or a nice big fat clear ice cube in the bottom of the whiskey glass.”
While some factions of the cocktail world look to the past for inspiration — viewing good ice as just one of the ingredients that bartenders once took for granted — others are experimenting with less traditional ways of using the ingredient.
The Aviary, a Chicago bar, is widely recognized as one of the country’s most innovative cocktail bars, boasting from 25 to 35 different kinds of ice. (Watch this video for a peek at the Aviary’s awe-inspiring ice program.) The Aviary served for a time a variation on an Old Fashioned in which booze was sealed inside a hollow sphere of ice. The lucky sipper was presented with a tiny slingshot to crack open their sphere and spill out the drink.
Riffle’s Brandon Josie offers a suggestion for replicating the Aviary’s drink at home: Hang a small balloon full of water in the freezer for a few hours — long enough for the outside layers of ice to freeze, but not so long that the center isn’t still liquid. (It’s important that the balloon hang in the freezer so that cold air can circulate around it, freezing it uniformly.) Remove the ice from the balloon, and use a screwdriver or metal pick to make a hole in the ice to drain out the liquid from the core. A syringe can then be used to fill the sphere with your booze of choice. Throw it back in the freezer for long enough for the hole to seal back up, and you’ve got a homemade version of one of the fanciest drinks around.
Ice’s more novel formations are usually only found in cocktails, but the Whiskey Soda Lounge, a popular Thai joint with outposts in Portland and New York, sells a drink called “jelly beer,” which is a sneaky way of saying “beer Slurpee.” A bottle of Singha is plunged into a barrel full of ice, rock salt, and water, and rapidly jostled at sub-zero temperatures for four to five minutes. When the bottle is opened, carbonation escapes, abruptly raising the beer’s freezing point — and voilà. Your ice-cold bottle of beer is transformed into a beer Slurpee. The 22-ounce bottles are served with a straw, though presumably this is more a concession to the difficulty of pouring the beer slushie from the bottle than an accommodation to modern dental hygiene.
By far the best crazy-ice experience, though, belongs to Camper English. With the help of a friend with connections to the tourism board in Newfoundland, English enlisted a fisherman to chop off a chunk of iceberg and ship it to him. “We had it stored in a special freezing room, and we all drank some delicious rum over 10,000-year-old iceberg ice,” English told me. “Iceberg ice is really compressed from all the snow and ice on top of it, so there’s a lot of air in there. When you pour liquid over it, the air pops like Rice Krispies. It was so ridiculous. It was spectacular.”
We assembled a map of the bars in Portland, Oregon, mentioned in this article.
Photos by Pat Moran.1