Ice Ice Baby: The Unsung Ingredient of the Cocktail World

Just in case you missed my ICE AGE article last week on in relation to Tales of the Cocktail 

Here is the full version for your reading pleasure:

With cocktail innovation on the rise and spirit companies seeking the next grand gesture in mixology, more and more focus has taken a precedent on the anatomy of a great drink.  The most basic ingredients can have a large impact on the outcome of a well made cocktail, and can help take the notion of a simple drink to a highly crafted cocktail.   One of the most important ingredients, which can be somewhat of an unsung hero, is the ice cube.  Ice has the ability to elevate the presentation and quality of a drink, but in turn can also have some adverse effects. Most standard cubed or crushed ice available on the market today is made with unfiltered tap water, which may contain impurities and minerals that can cloud the taste of a spirit or cocktail. This type of ice may also dilute a high quality beverage quickly due to the high volume of surface area exposed to the drink.

Back before ice was making its way into the hands of imbibers world-wide, a man named Frederic Tudor, also known as Boston's "Ice King", had a genius idea to help bring cold beverages to the masses.  He capitalized on the business of harvesting ice from frozen ponds in New England in the early 1800s, and founded the Tudor Ice Company, who distributed the cold gems by ship to high temperature regions such as the Caribbean, Southern Europe and India.  Over the past several decades, trends in ice making have developed from classic cubes to smoking dry ice to high-tech spheres.  Technological advances have made ice a mainstream item in most households and dining establishments around the globe, making it easy to have an “ice-cold” beverage instantly. 

Today, ice has become somewhat of a secret weapon during the current cocktail revolution in our country.  Ice plays an integral part of a properly made cocktail.  Just like glassware, bartenders must select ice wisely depending on the type of drink they are serving; using the wrong size of an ice cube can over dilute a drink.  A general rule is the stronger the beverage, the bigger the cube, i.e. 1 large cube for an Old Fashioned or Bourbon on the rocks.  Playful juleps or tiki-style cocktails require ice to chill a drink quickly as well as to water it down a bit, which is why crushed ice is ideal for these types of cocktails. Most martinis only need only a whisper of ice (shaken or stirred), too much can lead to dilution and ruin the spirit's aromatics and the cocktail's smooth texture, which is why it is also important to use quality produced ice to limit any impurities.

A few entrepreneurs recently saw an opportunity to enhance this trend creating a specialty style of cocktail ice mainly for on-premise establishments looking to take their bar program to the next level. 

One company in particular, who has mastered the skill of hand-carved cocktail ice, is Hundredweight in New York City.  Founded by Bartender and Owner, Richard Boccato of Dutch Kills Bar and Pain Killer and barman Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin, Hundredweight supplies artisanal ice to several bars throughout the five boroughs. They found a very cool, no pun intended, niche for themselves in the industry and are now known as the ice authorities and ice historians within the bartending community.

I was lucky enough to sit down with the ice-man Zack Gelnaw-Rubin to learn about the importance of the frozen water they are making and hear how their operation runs:

Q: What makes the ice you craft unique?
A: We hand chisel 300 lb blocks of clean ice every 3.5 days, then hand-pack and hand-deliver, it’s a very “hands” on operation.  We carve several styles of ice, including 4 sizes of rocks (i.e. Cubes) ranging in sizes from 1.75” to 3”, Highball spheres, Crushed Ice, and large format Punch Ice Bowls.

Q: How do you make 300 lb blocks of ice, and where?
A: We use Clinebell IceMachines and freezers at Dutch Kills and Weather Up Tribeca.  These machines produce the amount of ice we need and have created a system of production that is efficient enough to sell and distribute our ice daily to customers in the New York area.

Q: How did you learn the craft of making bar ice?
A: I began my ice studies as a bartender at Dutch Kills. During my training there I learned how to create rocks and shaking ice using only a hand-saw, mallet and chisel. When Richie asked me to be his right hand in the opening of Weather Up TriBeCa, I was introduced to the Clinebell machine, and the first stirrings of making “ice” a viable business venture. I asked Richie if he would want to partner with me and Hundredweight was born.

Q: What is your favorite style or shape of ice to make?
A: I don't really have a favorite style to make. It's all frozen water to me.

Q: On average, what is the melting time for the 2 inch cubes before it starts to dilute a spirit? How is that compared to average bar ice?
A: The moment any ice touches a liquid, it begins a phase change.  However, in a barroom setting, one large cube will forestall the inevitable over-dilution of any spirit or cocktail for much longer than say, a handful of Kold Draft ice cubes. It's a matter of reduced surface area; one large cube has less surface melt in contact with the liquid being chilled than a bunch of small ones. In addition, "big ice" is meant to be stored in a freezer during service, as opposed to scoop ice, which sits in a room-temperature bin all night long. This factor also contributes greatly to increased control over temperature and water content.

Q: Do you ever offer ice classes to the public?
A: We don't offer classes to the general public, but we do offer free trainings to new bar clients who want their staff to become proficient in the ways of ice cutting.

Q: Strangest ice request to date?
A: We've gotten some pretty strange requests, as many people think we are sculptors and want horses and penguins and scale models of the Statue of Liberty and such, but the strangest that I've actually executed would be a tie between a giant vodka luge for Hugue DuFour of M. Wells and an order of 20 ice scorpion bowls for an event at Pain Killer.

Q: Any last words of wisdom?
A: Better ice makes better cocktails!