Life never manages to be as simple we’d all hope. A kiss isn’t just a kiss; a job isn’t just a job; and a cocktail is never just booze in a fancy glass. In a culinary era when “craft” rules, cocktails have been elevated from mere potable to immersive culinary experience. You think specialty cocktails begin and end with mismatched antique glassware, century-old liqueurs, and banana dolphins? Think again—ice is now the artisanal accoutrement of choice.
Maybe you’re partial to swirling a six-sided colossus ‘round a hefty rocks glass, like the 21st century version of Don Draper. Perhaps you fancy the faux-Gatsbyan bliss of sucking down a julep through a heap of pebbled ice. Regardless of your preferred spirit, ice is probably making some magic happen in that glass of yours, keeping your cocktail cold and palatable for as long as thermodynamics will allow.
Like God or the Foo Fighters, “artisanal ice” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Whether it’s a perfectly proportioned die, or a sleek cylinder peppered with flower buds, all artisanal ice cubes have one thing in common—they are denser and clearer than any ol’ thing that you’d rastle from your ice chest. While these cubes are an indisputable triumph of aesthetics, are they worth the hype and—more importantly—a surcharge on already-pricey drinks?
“The one thing I find tacky is when you are at a upper-scale establishment and the rock they pour your spirit on is cloudy, which means it came from a mold and is a product of rapid freeze,” says Paul Shamrock, the owner and operator of Seattle cocktail club The Stampede. “We live in the second golden age of cocktails and ice is a huge part of that.”
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Everyday ice is muddied by minerals commonly found in tap water, such as calcium, and are pocked with air bubbles that form during the crystallization process. These imperfections are inconsequential and completely acceptable in everyday life, but not when you’re forking over nearly $20 for a drink. Aside from straining out impurities, artisanal ice also uses geometry to its advantage: The lower an ice cube’s surface area and the denser its volume, the slower the melting rate. As Dan Pashman, host of the food podcast The Sporkful said in a 2013 interview: “You want big ice cubes with as little of the ice surface as possible touching whatever is around it. ‘Cause when the ice gets exposed to air or liquid, that makes the ice melt.” (The ideal scenario for slowest-melting ice, Pashman says, is a baseball-sized sphere of ice in your glass.)
Remember when some econ teacher tried cramming “The Law Of Diminishing Returns” deep into your cerebellum? Let’s dig that lesson back up to prove a point. Not only do those hefty hunks of ice look elegant as all get-out, but they also melt significantly slower than ordinary ice—maximizing the amount of time you can spend nursing a drink, mulling over the fact that you’ve just spent a possibly irresponsible amount of money on a few ounces of small-batch booze (i.e., the ice is maximizing the return on each sip).
“The ice you choose definitely affects the outcome of your drink,” says Ryan Gannon, beverage manager of New Orleans cocktail bar Cure. “We use pebble ice when we have a cocktail that is balanced but still too intense in flavors such as high acid and high sugar. We use crushed ice to mellow it out with some additional dilution.”
Size and density are the prime concerns when it comes to artisanal ice, with shape trailing behind as a more aesthetic choice (i.e. what kind of shape you can physically shove into the glassware at hand). What all bartenders can agree on, though, is the fact that artisanal ice can get extremely pricey for both purveyor and patron.
“When we were opening Stampede we kinda faced a dilemma of what ice machine to get because A) They aren’t cheap, and B) We had no money,” Shanrock says of the barriers preventing many bars from investing in an ice program.
Others, however, spare no expense when it comes to ice. Ice chef Hope Clark made headlines with the absurdity (and proven necessity) of her job title; a chosen few make a living off carving ice blocks with greaseless chainsaws or Japanese hand saws, a common practice in Japanese cocktail bars. Some large-format ice manufacturers, like Just Ice, Inc., even offer a custom cube options in which ice contains herbs or stems of flowers.
Brenna Washow, bar manager at Chicago’s Split Rail, points out a few factors when it comes to ice choice. “There are many different factors involved: carbonated vs. non-carbonated, citrus vs. no citrus, how delicate are the ingredients that you are using,” she says. “Sometimes the cocktail doesn’t need much dilution at all and then you have to decide whether you use ice or no ice.”
The Sixth, stationed in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, pushes fancy ice even further, using it as a flavoring component to a cocktail. The bar’s Silly Rabbit, a drink served in a highball glass lodging a stack of four technicolor cubes, uses dilution to its advantage. As the technicolored cubes melt—each mimicking a different flavor of Trix cereal—the drink gains complexity and depth.
The next time you scoff at the perfectly proportioned, crystal-clear cube floating in your drink like an iceberg waiting for its Titanic, take a step back and appreciate what’s in front of you. Someone gave enough of a shit about your drink to carve its ice into a thermodynamically perfect chiller. It might be a little over-the-top, and it definitely won’t change your life, but didn’t it make that present, fleeting moment a little more delicious?