Young and Hungry

The Ice Is Right: Is Artisan Ice the Final Frontier for Craft Cocktails?

As the 300-pound block of ice ascends from the Jacuzzi-sized industrial ice machine, its edges crackle like broken glass. Joseph Ambrose and Caleb Marindin use an engine hoist to lift the flawless-looking mass, which you can see straight through thanks to a system that circulates the water, releasing any bubbles as it freezes.

Ambrose and Marindin rotate the block and lower it onto a metal table, here in the Bethesda facility of boutique ice company, Favourite Ice. Ambrose takes out a chainsaw and cuts through it, spewing snowy bits across the room. Marindin, nicknamed the “Eskimo” for his Alaskan roots, picks up a frozen brick with his bare hands and moves it to a table saw. He slides the ice through the blade, creating smaller and smaller pieces.

“It’s actually a meat saw,” Ambrose says. “Those blades cut through bone.” Marindin can break down a 300-pound block into about 800 two-inch cubes within a few hours.

The point? Creating the perfect cocktail on the rocks.

Ambrose, a bartender at P.O.V. Lounge at downtown’s W Hotel, founded Favourite Ice last year with Range beverage director Owen Thomson. Marindin, another bartender at Range, handles most of the ice cutting.

Favourite Ice is the area’s first outfit selling customized ice, hand-cut to specification, specifically for cocktails. Its growing client list includes Range, Rasika, Jaleo, Estadio, Proof, and Hank’s Oyster Bar on the Hill.

Fresh-squeezed juices, infused liquors, and house-made sodas and bitters have already infiltrated D.C.’s drinking scene. Ice, it seems, is the final frontier for craft cocktails.

While local cocktail scene pioneers PX and Columbia Room have sculpted frozen blocks since they opened, “ice programs” are only just now becoming a hot—or, uh, cool—trend in D.C. bars. At Hank’s on the Hill, mixologist Gina Chersevani only uses ice carved from 25-pound blocks from Favourite Ice. José Andrés’ just-opened “cocktail lab,” Barmini, also hand-carves its ice using a Japanese handsaw. And whiskey-centric Rye Bar, opening at Georgetown’s Capella Hotel in April, is already promoting its “hand harvested ice program” with an array of “chilling options.”

“Ice is the soul of a cocktail,” says Barmini “cocktail innovator” Juan Coronado. “You have your spirits, you have your ingredients—your organs, basically, in a body—that give shape and texture and aroma and flavor to the cocktail. But without ice, you have nothing.”

Not all ice, it turns out, is created equal. While the cubes in your freezer (and many bars and restaurants) are clouded with bubbles and cracks, the premium stuff is dense and clear, so it melts slower and won’t water down your drink as quickly. Hand-carving allows bartenders to create larger blocks that fit the glass, rather than lots of smaller cubes, which means less ice surface area and less dilution. “If you’re going to spend $10 to $15 for a cocktail and it’s on the rocks, you should have the best ice you possibly can,” Ambrose says.

Mixologists say it’s no different from a chef wanting to use premium products or state-of-the-art tools in the kitchen. “You could cook dinner off a hot plate, but you want a really nice stove,” Range’s Thomson says. “For them, it’s fire. For us, it’s ice.”

Aesthetics are also a big part of the appeal. “We spend so much time thinking about presentation anyway. Why would we leave out the ice?” says Thomson, whose ice offerings at Range include spherical “beef ice” made out of frozen veal consommé. Mixologist Derek Brown of Columbia Room and The Passenger says even the clink against the glass has a more satisfying ring to it with a dense block of ice. “You can say it’s just ice,” Brown says, “and you can ignore the fact that it’s a significant part of the drink.”

Brown was inspired to hand-carve ice at Columbia Room after observing the way ice is treated in Japan. Most bars there don’t have ice machines, so they’re more accustomed to large ice blocks and cubes, he explains. “In the United States, it became so willy nilly. People are just like, ‘Oh we need an ice machine. What’s the cheapest one?’”

While ice aficionados prefer larger hand-carved blocks for drinks on the rocks, for which they want to avoid too much dilution, bartenders are also looking for higher-quality machine ice. Kold Draft ice machines, which create denser, clearer one-and-a-quarter-inch cubes than other ice machines on the market, now dominate the cocktail bar scene. The advantage is that the dense ice doesn’t break down as fast inside a shaker, making it easier for bartenders to control dilution levels.

Sophisticated icemaking wasn’t always so widespread. When Todd Thrasher first bought a Kold Draft machine for the opening of PX in 2006, he had to go through the manufacturer. Now, there are three distributors in the area. “I would say that probably every cocktail-centered bar that’s opened in the last two to three years has a Kold Draft machine now,” he says.

A consistent supply of high-quality block ice hasn’t always been easy to come by. Talbert’s Ice and Beverage, a Bethesda beer and wine shop, supplies several cocktail bars with blocks of ice up to 300 pounds, but it doesn’t break down customized cubes like Favourite Ice. A growing demand for specialized, cocktail-specific ice is part of what motivated Thomson and Ambrose to start their company.

When he worked at Bourbon six or seven years ago, Thomson says, he would fill plastic trays with water, freeze them, then chip off misshapen chunks. “At that point I just knew that we were selling so much whiskey that if somebody got a whiskey and they wanted it on the rocks, I didn’t want to give them crappy machine ice that was going to melt in there.”

Now, instead of carving ice with hardware-store tools, more bars are using ultrasharp udon knives or specialized Japanese handsaws that are designed for ice sculpting. (Meanwhile, Columbia Room upgraded from a handsaw to a chain saw lubricated with vegetable oil.) Japanese copper or aluminum ice presses that produce perfect, clear spheres (and can cost more than $1,000) are also showing up in more bars, just as a slew of bartenders is learning to carve spheres and other complex shapes by hand. For example, Columbia Room bartender Matt Ficke proposed to his wife last year with a hand-carved ice diamond in a glass of Thomas H. Handy Sazerac rye whiskey. “She likes whiskey a lot more than she likes jewelry,” he says.

Favourite Ice charges 50 to 70 cents per two-by-two inch cube, depending on the size of the order. Chersevani, who orders larger 25-pound blocks and carves them down, says she spends about $120 a week on ice, which breaks down to about 14 cents per drink. She says she’d charge the same amount for drinks no matter what kind of ice she used; the real cost of a cocktail comes primarily from the spirits.

At Hank’s on the Hill, Chersevani has tried to prove that hand-carved ice can work even in a high-volume bar. “It isn’t something that you have to do one piece for one guest for 45 minutes. It’s something I wanted everybody to be exposed to,” she says.

But as with other mixology trends mocked in Portlandia skits and satirical rap videos on YouTube, there’s a thin line between artistry and excess.

Rye Bar, for example, has done a thorough investigation into the best bottled water for its two-inch ice spheres, which are molded by a milled aluminum Cirrus ice press. In an effort to be local, bar manager Will Rentschler says the bar sought regional water, rather than imported bottles. Rentschler taste-tested a number of options before settling on Saratoga Natural Spring Water from New York, which comes in a fancy blue glass bottle. He says he didn’t think filtered D.C. tap water was special enough to serve with a high-end rye whiskey: “We wanted to use a premium product," Rentschler says. “This just seemed to be the one that had the most—I don’t want to say flavor, because it’s water, so you’re looking for a lack of flavor actually. But it tasted the most clean." Despite the high-end water, Rentschler says the bar will not charge customers extra for the spheres.

While Rye Bar’s example may be extreme, hand-carved ice no longer is. In fact, Chersevani expects it will soon be the norm. “Once the standard has been set, and the cocktail world is more savvy, you can’t really get away with having an inferior product these days,” she says. And with that, maybe we’ve reached the limit on how artisan our cocktails can get?

“There will be something else,” Thrasher says. “It’s going to be all about the glassware soon.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo of Joseph Ambrose by Jessica Sidman

Comments

  1. #1

    This is so....so dumb

  2. #2

    But what about the glass my drink is served in?! Was it hand-blown in Italy? It fucking better be. And how about that olive you're about to place in my artisanal martini? Was it grown organically in a 1000-year old olive grove in Greece in soil fertilized with the feces of grass-fed cattle? If not, I'm afraid I'll have to take my business elsewhere! I deserve the best!

  3. #3

    Oh, damn - I didn't even read the last sentence before I posted my snarky comment. It's real.

  4. #4

    EPMD has the ultimate artisan ice:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUGisre9xNU

  5. #5

    BOOMTOWN!

    Really, can there be a bigger waste of time, energy, and money than caring deeply about what kind of ice cools your liquor?

  6. #6

    A clean glass would be nice. Hank's Oyster Bar is being ridiculous as usual. Perhaps rather then "artisanal ice" they might want to something more basic, oh, like dessert. I stopped going to these marginal places because I found it insulting to be told they don't make dessert but then to be summarily pressured to leave by the depositing of a chunk of stale, dry, bitter chocolate on the table by an angry lesbian. Learn to cook, think less about gimmicks!

  7. #7

    Amen, to all that Anonymous...the much to do about nothing set...how about if we really want to prove to our clientele how sophisticated we are we focus on ridding them of this American obsession with ice and educate them to drink things that were never intended to be drunk with ice (oh, like whiskey comes to mind) without ice.

    What's next, authentic gin and tonics served over ice made from the holy waters of the Ganges? Margaritas with ice made from the bath water of 300 illegal immigrants American born children? "Keep it green" ice made from lawn watering run off?

    It is interesting to note that all this obsession with these supposedly creative cocktails, etc. comes from and is aimed out a demographic whose taste was developed at the Slurpee machine at 7/11 and is based on high fructose corn sweetener. Can the ice really matter?

    Do us a favor, learn to make something for dessert.

  8. #8

    Only when bartenders garnish mixed drinks with exotic plumes will we have reached peacock tail.

    [punches self in throat]

  9. #9

    Artisan the ice of the beholder.

    [cartwheels into traffic]

  10. #10

    @Steve Kolowich

    Touche!

  11. #11

    Marry me, Steve. We can have our "Favourite" (the U makes it oh so precious and twee and old-timey!) ice in hand-blown Guatemalan guano glasses at the reception.

  12. #12

    If this place is still is business in two years, I will kick my own ass.

  13. #13

    Yes, large ice cubes are better in cocktails because they melt so much more slowly, but this shit is embarrassing. A cheap ice mold and filtered tap water is just fine for me. This artisan whatnot is not only pretentious as hell, it also just pushes up the price of drinks even more.

  14. #14

    I for one prefer my ice to be hand sculpted by a russian monk.

  15. #15

    This feedback and comments are very predictable. I must say that the majority of you are trolls and bitter souls that would never understand what this is about. They have places for you to go, like cheesy bars on every block where nobody cares about the service or the quality of the products. It takes beauty to recognize beauty. Whenever the majority of you go out, I do my best not to go to places where you are. Your sarcastic responses are perfect crystal images of your underdeveloped intellect and imagination. You think that you are above these techniques by mocking them, but trust me, you are prey of corporate america that lures your blue collar tastes around like a desperate mutt begging for food.
    Very embarrassed for all of you.

  16. #16

    i don't really drink that is alcoholic and wasted of time and money.

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