For the Love of Craft Ice Cubes

Good-looking ice serve a good purpose


By Maryse Chevriere, Editor at The Daily Meal
This article originally appeared at The Daily Meal

I geek out over good-looking ice in a cocktail. For this, I have to thank the growing current of like-minded folks — bartenders and cocktail bloggers alike — who have championed the resurgence of craft ice. People who, if not obsessive about the aesthetics of well-made ice, certainly value its role in the construction of a quality cocktail.

It's true, you don't add ice to a glass just because it's pretty — it serves a genuine function. When asked in an interview with StarChefs what his favorite tool behind the bar was, The Varnish's Eric Alperin responded, "ice is a bartender's best friend. Once ice is introduced to a liquid it changes forever." It's an ingredient. And though rarely listed in drink recipes, the size, shape, and even flavor of the ice used to make a cocktail influences the final product. These first two characteristics in particular are important because of the way they affect how a cocktail is chilled.
According to Gianfranco Verga, an experienced bartender and consultant for Tippling Bros., the "dilution factor" is precisely why the dense, perfectly 1"x1" cubes have come into fashion at today's craft cocktail establishments.

"Mathematically, these cubes have a much smaller surface area in respect to the amount of ice than most ice shapes," he noted. "That means we can shake drinks harder and longer to get them really cold but not too watered down." 

Interestingly, Verga credits the fishing industry for the revival of great ice. Apparently the now-popular cubes, made by machines from companies like Kold-Draft, are also great for packing fish. The high demand from the fishing industry kept the machines in production and circulating until eventually, they found their way to the bar.   

But anyone that has visited the likes of Dram and Death & Co. in New York, Alembic in San Francisco, The Violet Hour in Chicago or Cure in New Orleans, can attest that craft ice goes impressively beyond the cube. Crystal clear chunks of ice chipped to order from a giant block, jawbreaker-esque spheres, thick half-cylinders custom-molded to fit the glass.

Even though the extensive ice programs at such places require a great deal of work and a well-trained staff (not to mention can run up quite a tab for the bar itself), the trend doesn't seem to be tapering off. In fact, the soon-to-open bar Weather Up in New York's TriBeCa neighborhood, is taking the concept to almost unprecidented levels: becoming the first bar on the East Coast to do their own ice harvesting and production.

The belief is that the craft improves the product and better represents the ingredients. And at places like the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. in Philadelphia, where drink-sprecific pieces of ice are hand-chiseled from 40- to 50-pound blocks, the spectacle of the craft is essential to the bar experience. I mean, just look at the ice in these cocktails and tell me you aren't inspired to marvel, and order another round.

Photo credit: Maryse Chevriere

Click here for the Craft Ice Cube Slideshow.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: courgette
    124481 158

    I make my own perfect cubes with a couple of silicone trays made by Tovolo :

    I've been using them for about 5 years, I think-- unlike some of the Amazon reviewers, I've never tasted a "rubber" taste, and can't imagine why I would, as they're silicone. They work perfectly, but don't expect to be able to flip them over and have the cubes fall out-- they have to be pushed out. Not a problem when making cocktails for two, as I do.

    And yes, my cocktails chill faster and with a lot less dilution than you get in a bar-- so the only drawback is that I now can't stand most cocktails made in a bar! Not only do most bartenders seem to shake too pathetically, they use already-melting ice chips. I don't care to pay $15 for a watery, merely-cool cocktail when I can make it perfectly at home. Consequently, when I'm in an average bar, I've returned to ordering something I don't stock, like craft beers.

    So make your own excellent ice cubes at your own risk. You may find, as I have, that they ruin your chances of enjoying cocktails when you're out!

    May 12, 2011 at 1:54 PM

  • Snooth User: Hana Choi
    Hand of Snooth
    803609 935

    @courgette - Thanks so much for the excellent recommendation; I've been dying to get my hands on a silicon tray (for large cubes) for a while now. Cheers!

    May 12, 2011 at 3:34 PM

  • Snooth User: gwblas
    135612 4

    Williams-Sonoma sells the perfect trays. 2 trays, four 2" ice cubes per tray. King Cube Silicone Ice Cube Trays - $14.95 for the two. A W-S exclusive. They work great for my afternoon Dripping Springs Texas Vodka on the rocks (2 cubes and no bruise). Life is good :-)

    May 12, 2011 at 3:39 PM

  • Snooth User: Shaelee
    838388 1

    Great article! This is precisely why the Glace Luxury Ice Company has been around for over 3 years. Shape is just the beginning... it is impossible for the craft cocktail movement to advance while continuing to ignore what becomes 25% of a drink's volume in the first few minutes. I believe the most important of factors is the flavor the ice imparts on a cocktail or 'rocks' drink; which is why it is important to offer an ice brand that can be consistent and expected at fine establishments. This makes it possible, for the first time, to replicate a cocktail experience at any bar.
    Cheers! You can learn more and find Glace Ice here

    May 12, 2011 at 10:23 PM

  • Keep in mind that not all ice is the same temperature -- ice dripping with water from melting is about 0 deg C, whereas ice from your home freezer cranked to a low setting will be much colder when first taken out, which accounts for the perceived difference from 'watery' drinks. That said, for ice at 0 deg C, the amount of chilling of a drink depends on the mass melted, not on the shape. Obviously taste is subjective, and you tend to experience what you expect.

    May 13, 2011 at 1:36 AM

  • Snooth User: viini
    440104 1

    "Mathematically, these cubes have a much smaller surface area in respect to the amount of ice than most ice shapes"

    I bet that a sphere shape has the smallest surface area...but may be to difficult to freeze in large amounts?

    May 13, 2011 at 2:54 AM

  • Gianfranco Verga is only partially correct in statements. While I agree that 1x1 cubes have a low suface area to mass ratio, this means that cooling the drink will take longer which is what he is saying. This does not have much to do with dilution since the same amount of ice melts to get the drink to the same temperature regardless of the size of the cubes. What changes is how fast the rest of the ice in the prepared drink melts which further dilutes the drink. If you look at a shaken straight-up Martini you can see the ice crystals which keep the drink colder longer, but dilute the drink. With big ice cubes, the drink may be a few degrees warmer than with crusted ice, but the drink does not get watered down as fast.

    May 13, 2011 at 7:21 AM

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