Before the early 1800s, every beverage people consumed was warm. Imagine if that was the case today – no lemonade on a hot day, no cold beer and definitely no cold cocktails. A warm margarita? Yuck. We, as Americans especially, take ice for granted. Many cocktail enthusiasts will argue that ice and dilution are one of the most important aspects of a proper cocktail. But how did the idea of an ice cold, silky smooth Manhattan even come about and how is it done well today?
First, a quick history lesson. Before 1805, ice only existed in cold regions of the world during winter; there was no refrigeration what-so-ever and the only way to bring it to the hot places in the world would be to chop it out of a frozen lake and ship it halfway across the world. Starting around 1805, that’s exactly what Frederic “the Ice King” Tudor did. People in the hotter parts of the US and Britain colonies in the West Indies did not know they needed ice until the entrepreneur showed them. In addition to cold drinks, ice could be used to refrigerate fresh meats, dairy, eggs and even fruit. As these industries grew, so did Tudor’s. By the 1830’s, Tudor has turned a small luxury into a necessity. Ice farms were popping up all over the place, where huge blocks were cut, packed in sawdust for insulation and shipped as far as India.
Tudor was also one of the first to introduce a “get the first free” policy. He offered ice to saloons for free, knowing that once the patrons had tried their whiskey cold, they’d never want it any other way. He encourages saloon owners to sell their hooch at the same price with ice because they’d be more popular than other bars in the town. By the end of the 19th century, bartenders all across the world were using frozen water to make their creations more appealing; perhaps the greatest bartender of all time, “The Professor” Jerry Thomas issued the first major cocktail book 2 years before Tudor’s death with all of the cocktails calling for ice.
The arguments over which type of ice to use in each cocktail are extensive. Certain drinks, like a Mint Julep, are designed to be consumed fast and in very hot weather, hence the presentation on crushed ice. On the contrary, an Old Fashioned is often sipped, and to avoid quick dilution a different type of ice can be used. Cocktail geeks and aficionados will argue for days about the best type of ice, but the general consensus is that size does matter. Large cubes look better, have colder centers, and due to the smallest amount of surface area touching warm alcohol, dilute much slower. The result is a drink that stays colder for longer.
Each CH Projects location employs a few different types of ice and these are the ones we feel are most relevant in our cocktail culture:
Kold Draft: These 1.25 inch cubes are becoming the new standard for quality cocktails. They’re very cold, large enough to keep drinks cold for a long period of time without diluting too quickly and can be made fairly quickly and in large quantities, depending on the machine used. When stirring or shaking, only a few can be used due to their size and because of the movement of the cubes, aeration is very high.
Large Block Ice: These large cubes can be cut to any size to fit nearly any glass with only a single cube. As stated earlier, this is ideal due to the small surface area. However, these cubes must be hand cut with a serrated knife or ice pick, which is both dangerous and labor intensive. The downside to this style of ice is the time and space it takes to freeze such cubes (if doing high volume, this is nearly impossible) and their toll on a bartender’s body when shaking a cocktail; the piston-like motion of the ice creates a jarring effect on the wrist and elbow which can have long term effects after years of bartending.
Super Rocks: These cubes are ideal in terms of presentation and size. A machine called a Clinebell creates these large, 300 lb blocks that must also be hand cut but are completely clear, showing no visible air bubbles or impurities. The density and small surface area create for the most efficient shaking rocks (they never burst mid-shake, creating small ice shards that melt very quickly). The major downfall is price and preparation: the large blocks are expensive to make, store, and ship and once delivered must be chain sawed down into usable sheets before hand cut with an ice pick or serrated knife.
Spheres: These perfectly round balls are ideal for presentation – they have the smallest surface area of any style of ice and thus will melt the slowest. Having cubes that look like diamonds in a glass is always a plus but making these cubes is a timely process. The machine takes irregular pieces of ice, and depending on the machine, density and temperature of cube, creates small ice balls. Unfortunately, these machines are very expensive and either Clinebell or ice blocks must be used and thus cut; only 30-40 blocks can be turned out per hour, so the machine is also slow and quite wasteful.
Scotsman/Crushed Ice: These small ice pebbles melt very quickly, making drinks very cold and very diluted in a short time. The large amount of surface area with so many tiny cubes is much larger than that of the ice sphere, resulting in high dilution. If a bartender is not quick or careful enough, this could cause a drink to overflow onto a customer in the blink of an eye. The benefit to this ice is that no matter what, you feel like you are on an island, hence their heavy use in tiki cocktails.
“Hotel” Ice: By far the most common ice used. These are the cubes you see everywhere from dance clubs to coffee shops. They dilute quickly, but are very cost efficient, are made from durable machine, and freeze in an instant.
While having all of this fancy ice is a nice luxury, it is obviously not an end-all, be-all for a quality cocktail. There are plenty of world-renowned cocktail bars that use Kold Draft; producing Super Rocks or spheres takes a lot of time, space, and resources that will get drained from other areas. Bars that focus on things like infusions and fancy bitters may not have the time to hand cut ice everyday. The important thing is that each bar knows how to efficiently use the ice to which they have access. If Frederick Tudor had his way, every bar in the United States would likely have all these ice machines – one ice type for each cocktail, just to prove that we were not taking his idea for granted.
Brian Lee is the General Manager of Noble Experiment where he also tends bar throughout the week.