Kindred Spirits: The Inside Story on Ice & Making Ace Cocktails
“Craft” cubes affect the dilution, temperature, flavor and olfactory appeal of your cocktail
You never forget your first craft ice cube.
I’d never really thought about ice until a decade ago, when I attended a bartender friend’s seminar in Colorado. Like most of us, I didn’t fully comprehend the role of ice as it pertains to cocktails. Ice affects everything from dilution, temperature and flavor to aroma.
Several days after that seminar, I made a 300-pound block of ice with said friend, who is also a longtime bar proprietor. With the aid of a winch, tape measure and chainsaw, we also cut a frozen block into what his bar calls “BFICs,” or “Big F——g Ice Cubes.” It was laborious work, especially on a snowy January morning, but the tasting session at his seminar had enlightened me. There’s something very aesthetically and sensorially pleasing — almost sensual — about a cocktail finished with a hefty, crystalline cube of ice.
“Ice is interesting to me, as I think it’s the most overlooked cocktail component that can impact quality,” says Javier Roberto Flores, founder of Austin’s Fat Ice. “Quality block ice [from which custom or oversized cubes and other formats are made] can make a drink or spirit shine, while cloudy or chip ice can ruin them both, in my opinion. Why pay money for a top shelf spirit when your ice isn’t of the same standard?”
Dilution is one of the most critical reasons to use good ice. When ice melts, it cools the liquid it’s in (i.e., your cocktail). Bartenders who understand and appreciate ice and dilution will be specific about the quantity, quality and format (cubes, crushed, spheres, etc.) of their ice, as well as its temperature, which affects its density and the speed with which it melts.
“Dense ice produces a colder, less-diluted drink with great, lasting texture and bubble structure [the tight cap of effervescence that lingers on the top of a properly shaken drink],” says Steven Robbins, director of operations at Half Step, which has a comprehensive in-house ice program. “Cutting ice also produces uneven scraps as by-product. We crack these shards with a spoon and use them in stirred, ‘up’ drinks like a Martini or Manhattan. Their density allows you to stir longer, which yields a colder drink that’s not overly diluted, with a full, velvety texture.”
At Lutie’s, the bar makes its own crushed ice with the aid of a Hoshizaki ice machine (they source cubes from Fat Ice). “The Mon Cheri on our menu is a Cobber-style cocktail [a pre-Prohibition drink made with crushed ice, sugar, fruit and spirit],” says general manager Mary Catherine Edmonson. “Crushed ice keeps that style colder longer, but if it’s used too sparingly, it can dilute it very quickly. We pack the ice in a bigger glass than the drink appears to need, to ensure it stays cold when imbibed on the patio during a Texas summer.”
A Time and a Place for Craft Ice
Craft cocktail bars worldwide have built their reputations on creating exemplary drinks. the modern cocktail movement itself is a nod to the creativity, art and showmanship that marked a century-long Golden Age of Cocktails that began in 1806.
For Flores, a native Texan who’s been bartending since 2001, “There’s a time and a place for craft ice. When you’re trying to have an elevated experience, the ice should be part of that. I can crack Miller Lites and take shots of tequila with the best of them, but I do have hopes that one day people will be pouring their Dr. Pepper’s over Fat Ice.”
Flores moved to Austin in 2013 and quickly a saw a need for a craft ice supplier. He started Fat Ice in 2017 supplying wholesale accounts. Today, the company also sells six-packs of 2 x 2 x 2-inch cubes at Spec’s, for use in the home bar. “They fit most rocks glasses and are perfect for a nice, heavy pour of bourbon or an Old-Fashioned,” says Flores, “They’re cut so you can see right through the cube.”
Fat Ice also makes spears — dense rectangles designed for long, Collins-style drinks, also known as Collins cubes — spheres, crushed, hand-cracked and punch blocks made from Austin water and commercial grade filtration systems. Water and proper storage are critical for ice, even at home. “If you’re making a drink with ice stored alongside your leftovers, it will negatively impact the drink,” says Edmonson.
Adds Flores: “What goes into your ice is going to affect the final product. Think about how salt and seasoning on steak change the flavor of the meat; the same is true of ice. If your water is pure and free of minerals and additives, the ice should just ‘open-up’ and chill your drink. Dirty or cloudy ice will alter or downgrade the flavor of the spirit or cocktail you’re trying to enjoy.”
At Half Step, the ice program is done with the aid of a commercial Clinebell ice machine and “massive” filtration system. “Ingredients matter,” says Robbins. “Pizza is a perfect analogy. Water is just as important to the quality of the dough as it is to ice, and great ice is essential to a great cocktail. We use Austin water, which comes from the Hill Country. The high minerality makes it taste great, and it’s naturally filtered through limestone before it’s even treated. We then additionally filter and soften it in-house.”
Half Step’s decision to make ice in-house is a combination of quality control and maintaining and honoring bar culture. “There’s a certain amount of pride in knowing we made everything right down to the ice,” says Robbins. “The cocktail is simply a single aspect of the hospitality experience, but we try to make that as special as possible. When guests see how much care goes into just the ice, they typically feel a certain veneration for the place and program.”
Small Victory and The Roosevelt Room also make craft ice in-house, although the latter also sources several formats from Fat Ice so the bar can offer greater value on Happy Hour cocktails (outsourcing ice incurs less labor).
Small Victory, meanwhile, employs a process similar to Half-Step, using a Clinebell and Austin water. The bar’s dual treatment water system filters out dust, sediment and odor, and the built-in softener delivers a “smoother mouthfeel you can actually detect and taste,” says co-owner Josh Loving.
It’s unusual for a bar as tiny as Small Victory to implement an ice program. “I wanted to create the highest-quality drinks we could, and to maintain full control of that process, you need to make your own ice,” says Loving. “It worked out well because we were required to expand in the back, and that gave us the room we needed for our ice production.” The bar produces cubes, spears, punch blocks and shards for their abbreviated but exemplary menu of cocktail classics.
For Robbins, an ice program “certainly isn’t the easiest way, but it’s something we feel strongly about. We ain’t saving lives, just trying to throw a party and make great drinks, and ice is a crucial part of that.”
If you’d like to make your own “craft” ice at home, you can go the lazy, low-investment route I favor, by using distilled water (to avoid imparting off flavors/aromas and to produce crystal clear cubes or blocks) and a silicone tray (available online and at large liquor retailers like Total Wine). I favor the large rocks cubes, but you can also find large spheres.
If you want to seriously geek out, there’s no better resource than cocktail and spirits writer, Camper English. His website, Alcademics, takes ice science and DIY production to a whole other level.
The Roosevelt Room includes a segment on freezing and “harvesting” your own clear ice cubes in their “Cocktail Creation & Mixology 201: Advanced Techniques” Master Class, which takes place April 24th, 2022. Tickets available through Eventbrite.