Robb Report Vices

The Right Way to Ice

  • Troy Johnson

At fine establishments like Milk and Honey in London and New York, or Rickhouse in San Francisco, cocktail culture is serious business. Bartenders are compulsively reexamining the tiniest details of how to make the perfect drink. They’re Googling their way to 100-year-old recipe books. They’re sourcing bitters from arcane crags of society. But no detail is more contentious than ice.

There’s block, cube, small cube, rod, globe, pebble, shaved, and the dreaded hotel ice—pieces that melt much too fast and are much too small to keep a drink insulated. We know what you’re thinking: It’s frozen water, for crying out loud. Does it really matter? But asking whether it matters or not is like asking whether it matters if a chef uses a pinch of salt or a palmful. “It does matter,” says Anthony Schmidt, who took training from Milk and Honey’s founders and now leads two San Diego cocktail bars—Craft and Commerce and Noble Experiment—that both rank among the nation’s best. “Ice is an invaluable tool that controls temperature and dilution.”

Ever order a Johnnie Walker on the rocks and, within a few sips, it tastes like rye-flavored water? That’s an ice problem. The smaller or less pure the ice cube, the faster it melts. Melted ice dramatically changes the flavor of a drink. “For an old-fashioned or fine spirits neat, we’ll pull out the crystal-clear, big block of ice, because we know it’s going to melt super slow,” says Schmidt. “I can literally pour whiskey on top of one of those blocks and it’ll still be warm. It’ll take a minute for it to start cooling down. Most spirit drinkers appreciate this. It gives them the slow, full spectrum of the experience, without watering down the spirit to a noticeable degree.”

Sadly, the worst ice is in your kitchen freezer. The cubes in an ice tray get their trademark cloudiness from minerals and particles in the water. Those minerals and particles give off gas, which freezes air pockets into the cube. “That’s why ice in your drinks at home just, poof,disappear,” explains Schmidt. “As a bartender, if I were to shake with that ice—the bubbles inside the cube burst and expose more surface area, and the cube melts even faster.”

Lake ice is the mythical ideal. Cut the top layer off frozen Lake Erie and below it is a thick layer of pure, transparent ice—it’s a Pappy Van Winkle’s dream. To approximate that, Schmidt orders 300-pound blocks from Clinebell, frozen slowly with a steady stream of water flowing over the top to prevent mineral buildup. It’s used primarily by ice sculptors because of the clarity. Schmidt’s team saws the blocks into custom cubes. He also has a Kold-Draft machine that freezes reverse-osmosis water into clear, 1-inch cubes.

If you want to recreate that at home, Schmidt says there is a way. “For the purest, slowest-melting ice, you want to control the rate at which it freezes,” he says. “Fill up an Igloo cooler with warm water—reverse-osmosis water, or at least distilled—and throw it in the freezer. It’ll freeze into a huge block. Most of the minerals will rise to the top. Cut that off and you’ve got a big block of crystal-clear ice.” 

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