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.