Presented by Chris Manis with promotional consideration provided by Clinebell ice machines and Prohibition
“Can I get it on one of those big cubes?”
I get this request at least five times a night. The inquiry is no longer based on the availability of the two cubic inches of crystal-clear ice, which is now standard in fine whiskey and cocktail bars, restaurants, and even many home freezers. With the advent of the now-ubiquitous silicone molds available in any number of online and brick-and-mortar retailers, I wouldn’t be surprised to find my great-aunt sipping small-batch bourbon over a perfect, oversized cube in her retirement community.
But 10 to 15 years ago, if you ordered a highland scotch on the “rock,” the bartender might have thought you had an issue with plural nouns. Are we ready for this brave new world of singular ice configurations? Does the ice in my drink make a difference? Do you use those ice cubes ’cause it looks cool? Can you just shut up and pour me a shot and a beer?
The short answer to all of these questions is yes. Here’s your shot and a beer—I’ll join you for one after my shift.
But, if you want the slightly longer answer, then we have to start at the beginning.
Like most aspects of our drinking and eating culture, to understand the current ice obsession you have to look back. Specifically, at ice’s role in our country, and it’s role in a small country halfway around the world. Let’s start with that country, Japan, because they started a hell of a lot earlier than we did.
Like most things, they do ice a bit differently in Japan. Although for decades they have designed and built standalone ice machines and refrigerators and freezers with built-in ice-makers for American consumers, the most famous bars throughout Tokyo do not have ice machines. Ice is delivered daily. Bartenders at even modest whiskey bars cut that ice by hand, and use ice picks to shape the blocks into beautiful crystal-clear spheres, which are delicately placed in glasses of whiskey. This is attention to detail, and reverence for ice in Japan dates back over 1,000 years. Back before there was even a thought of America existing, in the villages of Japan, pools were dug and filled with underground water from the base of a mountain. This water slowly froze over a period of two to three weeks, at which point it was harvested in huge blocks, wrapped in bamboo leaves, and stored in caves until the hot and humid spring and summer. The ice was then hauled to the city, typically on someone’s back, and presented to the emperors and noble class of Japan. Just think about this the next time you demand a hotel room that isn’t too close to the ice machine.
Now that we’ve started the Japanese timeline, let’s go back home. Frederic Tudor was a pretty cool guy. Back around the turn of the 19th century he started harvesting ice from lakes and ponds around Massachusetts. Instead of letting that ice melt, he covered it in sawdust, and stored it in ice houses. Tudor eventually made a small fortune shipping his ice to the Caribbean and as far away as India. Henry David Thoreau even wrote about this in his journal in 1846:
“The sweltering inhabitants
of Charleston and New Orleans,
of Madras and Bombay and
Calcutta, drink at my well…the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
By the mid-1800s, ice was available year round—a game-changer in the birth of the modern cocktail. Before this, water (the unfrozen kind) was typically added to a cocktail for dilution, and if you ordered an Old Fashioned, you would get a much warmer drink. Entire categories of cocktails such as juleps and cobblers were invented as a result, and the drinking world was forever changed.
Remember the Japanese timeline? Like a locomotive, it just kept right on powering through today. Ice for drinks was still the same as it ever was: dense, clear, and delivered in big blocks. The American ice train, however, had a quick stop to make. Quick is relative here, since we had a 13-year layover at Prohibition Station beginning in 1920. During those years, the best bartenders moved to other countries to continue their craft, people started making gin in bathtubs, and Americans began to embrace the ice machine—and the freezer. Goodbye block ice. Don’t get me wrong, an ice machine is a great thing in theory, and commercial ice machines have gotten much better in the last 15 or so years, but the industry has been plagued by “Shitty Hotel Ice” (yes, that is a professional term) for a long, long time.
When we talk about Prohibition, and pre-Prohibition cocktails, we now have an image to conjure in our heads thanks to the fact that we all like to play dress up and pretend we’re living in the roaring ’20s. I don’t know about you, but the image I’ve got is a guy in suspenders, with a beard or an ironic mustache, shaking a cocktail in a weird flailing motion and telling you the history of the Hemingway Daiquiri that he looked up on Wikipedia last week. Who knows, maybe he even has a tattoo of a bar spoon on his arm. What a nerd. The neo-speakeasy is one of the most dominating bar trends of the past decade, and even small towns in Kansas now have a darkly lit cocktail den. At the dawn of this fixation on classic and craft cocktails, bartenders began to focus on ingredients like never before. Juices were squeezed fresh, extinct liqueurs recreated, and neon sour mix poured down the sink. This was all well and good, but all those painstakingly crafted cocktails were getting overly diluted in mixing glasses and shaker tins filled with SHI (shitty hotel ice), and then poured over that same cloudy ice that melted before you took your first sip. The ugly truth: we forgot to look at the ice as an ingredient.
And then a few of us went to Japan—or maybe they came here. Maybe we just saw something on YouTube and it clicked. All of a sudden, American bartenders were talking about how cool the Japanese ice was. Of course the Japanese weren’t doing this to look cool—they just never stopped using high-quality ice, and it was only natural to use it in cocktails. Bartenders here pulled out their Jerry Thomas cocktail book and started reading them again, and this time they didn’t skip over the frozen stuff.
At first this was not an easy task. There was no morning ice delivery for bars here. Good ice is tough to make, and expensive to buy. Clinbelle ice machines—capable of creating a 300-pound block of crystal-clear ice every two to three days—were really only used by ice carvers, and a new one costs at least $5,000. Some bars with huge bankrolls in bigger cities bought Clinebells and installed blast freezers—I’m looking at you, Aviary—others ordered ice from the ice sculptors in town. Here in Columbus, M at Miranova chips ice from a block created by Rock On Ice in Sunbury (see page 38). Bartenders in NYC, LA, and San Francisco even formed ice companies dedicated to serving bars. At Mouton, they tried making big cubes in their freezers, but they came out full of trapped air and impurities.
So we tried boiling the water first.
We tried using distilled water.
We tried melting and refreezing.
This shit was hard.
Slowly but surely we chipped away at this ice problem to get where we are now, which is really where we started with block ice back in the 1800s. The consensus seems to be that slow-freezing from the top down in an insulated container is now the preferred method for great ice without the machines. It’s not perfect, but we’re getting there. It still takes me at least five minutes to carve a passable ice ball, and I don’t look that cool when I do it, so I leave that to the wizards in Japan. I do spend a portion of each shift chipping away at a block of ice and filling bins in the freezer with big cubes clear enough to read a book through.
Do I think it makes for a better drink? Absolutely. Do I think we’d all be OK without them? Absolutely.
Even as a devout worshipper at the altar of the cocktail, most of my drinking is done in dive bars, and it’s at least 75 percent beer. I’ll go so far as to say that I really like mid-shelf whiskey on some shitty hotel ice. But when I want a few ounces of bourbon from a $100 bottle, or a $10 drink with housemade syrups, fresh herbs, fresh juice, and high-quality spirits, I’d like to think that some effort was put into making sure that drink isn’t a big watery mess.
And yeah…it looks pretty f*cking cool.
Here’s how to get clear ice at home
The solution to the mystery of getting clear, air-bubble, and impurity-free ice without expensive machines was actually deceptively simple, it just took us a while to get there. At Mouton, silicone molds are modified by cutting out the bottom, and they are placed in a pan with holes drilled in the underside. This pan is then placed in a larger pan with insulated sides, and both are filled with water. The molds float, and water is allowed to pass freely through the holes into the pan below. Because the whole apparatus is insulated, the water freezes slowly from the top down, pushing all of the air and impurities to the bottom (under the pan with the holes drilled) where it can be easily chipped away—leaving them a slab of clear ice with silicone dividers frozen throughout. They chip away the excess and pop out the cubes that go in your drink.
This is even easier to do at home if you’re willing to cut the shape of the cubes yourself. Forget the silicone molds, forget the double pan, and forget insulating anything yourself. Just go pick up a deep cooler, the kind made to store a few beers, or your small picnic model, and fill it up with water. You don’t have to boil it, it doesn’t have to be distilled, tap water will work fine. The key here is to leave the top of the cooler open. Place it in your freezer with the top open and wait for all the water to freeze. This takes more than a while, so be patient. Once it has frozen completely, wait for it to thaw a bit so the block of ice can be easily removed. Now you should have a block of clear ice with a bottom layer of cloudy ice. Use a serrated blade or saw (the cheaper the better) to cut off the cloudy stuff, and using picks or saws, divide the block into two-inch cubes. Commence fancy drinking.