Drink June 2009

Cold Fusion

Ice—the most neglected of cocktail ingredients—can ruin a drink or make it come alive.
David C. Sampson

A friend accompanying me on a minor debauch one recent evening rang up a new bar to see if it was open. He smiled and passed me the phone. I could hear a cocktail shaker in the background making a crisp ka-chick-ka-chick sound.

It was an audibly delicious cocktail, I said.

“Kold-Draft ice, my friend,” he said. On the basis of that sound alone, we headed across town.

Ice is certainly the most overlooked ingredient in cocktails. Or at least it was until recently. Ice has typically been an afterthought—invisible, tasteless, essentially free. For decades, bars have used ice machines engineered to shoot out “cubes” like a Gatling gun. But they often produce crumbly, air-filled crescents or hollow tubes that melt almost instantly. The ice in your home freezer is much better than that found at the average bar.

But that’s changing. The Violet Hour—a neo-speakeasy with an unmarked, scarcely noticeable door in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood—offers eight kinds of ice, depending on which cocktail you request. A Mai Tai calls for crushed ice, for example, whereas a Scotch on the rocks demands larger, slower-melting ice. Some might consider an “ice program” an affectation, like a “pillow concierge” at a hotel. I suggested as much to Toby Maloney, a partner in the bar and its head mixologist. He admitted that it sounds like “the most pretentious thing on Earth.”

Yet he wouldn’t do it any other way: “Ice is as important to a bartender as a stove is to a chef,” he explained, in the cadence of an oft-cited mantra. “With a chef, it’s a matter of heating things up. With a bartender, it’s a matter of cooling things down. You’d never tell a chef he could have only a stove-top burner or a fryer. And I couldn’t do without at least three or four different types of ice.”

The standard ice used in shakers at the Violet Hour comes from a Kold-Draft machine, which produces one-and-a-quarter-inch cubes. Maloney told me the ice comes out of the machine cold enough to rapidly chill a drink, but not so cold that it shatters when shaken. The bar also employs crushed ice and shard ice, the latter being oblong blocks that fit perfectly into a Collins glass. And Maloney admits to having basic bar ice (which he calls “cheater ice”) for cooling bottles. But his bar may be best known for its chunk ice. The night I visited, a barback deftly chipped away at an angular, Braque-style ice block with a large spoon, taking about 90 seconds to shape something roughly the size of a baseball. After being left to melt slightly, the chunk was rounded and smooth, and it fit into an Old-Fashioned glass as if into a well-used catcher’s mitt. Lovely to look at, but does ice really change how a drink tastes?

Sitting at the white marble-top bar, I asked a bartender, Michael Rubel, to make me two Old-Fashioneds, one with cheater ice and the other with chunk ice. He at first refused, displaying the sort of high dudgeon I imagine Picasso would show if asked to complete a paint-by-numbers. But, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, he eventually relented.

The difference was startling. From the first sip, the drink with cheater ice was like a debased “cocktail lite,” with thin flavors and watery insipidness. The chunk ice yielded a richer taste, and had a denser, almost velvety texture to it. After five minutes, the cheater cocktail was deadly flat (“quite foul, actually,” decreed Rubel after a taste), while the drink with chunk ice seemed to be opening up and blossoming. Only after about 20 minutes had the second drink begun to soften around the edges.

I went into the kitchen with another bartender, Stephen Cole, who hunted up a scale and thermometer. He placed the two kinds of ice into separate cups filled with water. We let them sit for 10 minutes. The cheater-ice water proved to be colder (34 degrees compared with 40 degrees), but the ice had lost a full quarter of its weight, compared with just a 14 percent loss in the chunk ice. A cheater-ice cocktail is thus chillier (numbing the taste buds) and more watery (making it flat).

“Better ice makes better cocktails,” Cole said.

Back at the bar, we chatted about “educated” or “seasoned” ice—chunk ice served with straight spirits and typically stout enough to stand up to two or three rounds. Some aficionados claim this improves each drink through a dimly understood process, possibly involving micropores. I am at work on a testing regimen, and I will endeavor to report back.

Presented by

Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic correspondent.

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