Ice, Ice, Baby
I will never forget knocking on the door of Death & Co. in NYC in the late 2000s on a Tuesday at noon, asking if I could “borrow” enough ice for 50 people. Curiosity got the better of me as the very kind gentleman was filling up two garbage bags full of ice, and I asked him what made this particular ice so unique that I had to haul it from the Lower East Side to the Upper East Side. I remember him talking about velocity, making clear ice, and how trapped gases and impurities make the ice dilute faster. He had me listen to the difference in sound as the ice rounds off and melts and how you can judge the effectiveness of your shaking technique by looking at the wash line of the cocktail. He asked me what the best cocktail I had ever had was - I didn’t have the nerve to ask him if a tequila shot and a lime counted as a cocktail. I thanked him as I left for not only the ice but for answering my questions and being so kind; he said, “Listen.. If you’re not curious, you can’t learn”.
By the time I was hauling two, now half-melted after a summer subway trek uptown, garbage bags out the station, I remember thinking that, while I thought he was a bit crazy, his passion for ice stuck with me. I called him the “Ice Man” until I saw a NY Times article about Death & Co. and realized it was David Kaplan, the owner.
History of Ice
As Amy Brady writes, when a man from a wealthy Boston family named Frederic Tudor decided in the early 1800s to bring ice from up north to the warmest climes, from Martinique to Cuba to New Orleans, he marketed it as a luxury while teaching his customers what it was and how to use it.
The First Ice Age in Cocktails came to a hard close in the early 20th century. When Congress passed the 18th Amendment and shut down liquor sales on January 17th, 1920, the ice you had in your cocktail was far less important than just having a cocktail. But while the country dried out, citizens found getting ice easier.
When Prohibition ended, just over 1% of the country had a refrigerator in their home. By the mid-1950s, that number spiked to 80%. The thirteen years of Prohibition pretty much killed the art of bartending in America, and it took decades for things to begin to turn back around. It wasn’t until after 2000 that a critical mass of American bartenders began looking to drink books from Frederic Tudor’s time, and classic cocktails came back into fashion.
As Kenzie Bryant writes in Vanity Fair, “Each of these subsequent ice eras has led, in their own winding ways, to this golden age of ice. We can have ice frozen into cubes, spheres, or tiny little hearts. We can have it crushed, chipped, shaved, or molded into cylinders with the center hollowed out. We can have it the old-fashioned way, harvested from lakes and distributed in blocks if we live in the right part of the country and are feeling a bit nostalgic”.
Just The Tip of The Iceberg
Summer 2023 is seemingly the summer of ice, and who are you in 2023 if you don't have a dedicated curated ice drawer?
Ice cubes are stamped with fashion brand logos at parties and lit from within by fairy lights at weddings. Clear ice can be embossed using a brass stamp for wax-sealing wedding invitation envelopes. These can be found for less than $10 online and in craft stores and can press a pattern into a cube or two until they need to be warmed up for reuse.
Ice mold sales have taken off, and ice influencers are freezing everything from meatballs to chocolate pudding. Ice Ball Press sales are up, and the meticulous restocking process merely scratches the surface of the trend's impact on TikTok, where users share their frozen innovations via #icedrawer and #icetok.
Branded ice was considered so last year as cocktail content creators have already moved on to the patterned cube, now seen in honeycombs, stripes, spikes, scales, zigzags, harlequin, and other decorative adornments. The new look of fancy ice now includes all six sides of the cube.
TikTok influencers are going all out, trying to outdo each other's collections of coloured ice disks, alternating cubes and spheres, foam ice, and infused ice. From January to December, the hashtag #cleariceweek has become a hot spot for showing off tricks like ice diamond cocktails and custom-etched cubes. Ice-shaped pineapples and powdery ice are making the rounds.
"Amateur drink makers, on the other hand, turned to home bartending during the pandemic and showing off their home bartending skills online. Clear cubes make a notable aesthetic difference in drinks," says Camper English. "We are in a moment of status ice, in which we've never had more opportunity to spend unnecessary time, money, or space—or all three—on acquiring frozen water," according to Vanity Fair.
Break the Ice
Even if you don’t count yourself as an ice snob, you might gravitate toward a particular establishment serving a specific variety.
Achieving clear ice is something to strive for. Unlike traditional ice, clear cubes and spheres are free of impurities, and they keep drinks colder for longer without watering them down.
Ice is primarily cloudy due to air trapped in the center of a cube when it freezes from the outside in, and also it often cracks due to expansion during freezing. To make clear ice, the trick is to control the direction in which the water freezes (“directional freezing”). Brands like Wintersmiths and True Cubes make ice molds considered the gold standard for clear ice.
This summer, The Ice Designer, essentially a big ice stamp without the handle, debuted. The heavy flat metal plate retails for nearly $200 and makes five patterns when an ice cube is pressed. It’s also customizable, so bars and brands can add logos or choose specific ways.
Disco Cubes founder Leslie Kirchoff explains that “great cocktails can actually be considered multi-sensory sculptures. Mixologists are truly becoming artists, much like chefs have become. You have the architectural elements, like the shape and texture of the glassware, the colour and clarity of the drink. . . You can add any number of things to modify the taste, feel, and presentation, like an egg white, a dash of bitters, a flame. . . and then you have the ice. Every element is so carefully calculated that it’s a wonder why more people aren’t experimenting with ice.”
One thing is clear - ice is having a moment. 🧊