The Iceman Cometh: The Rise of a Gourmet Ice Entrepreneur
Michel Dozois is pinning the success of his two-year old company on the dubious thrills of watching ice melt.
When courting new clients, Dozois, the owner of Los Angeles's Névé Luxury Ice Company, sits them down for a simple experiment. He fills two Old Fashioned glasses with ice—the first with conventional cubes, the second with his company's "ice rock," a single large cube, which takes up about 50 percent of the glass—and tops them with a dram of good whisky (his spirit of choice is Laphroig). Dozois then asks the potential clients to sit back and wait, allowing nature to take its course.
About every seven minutes, he asks the client to take a sip—first of the conventional drink where the ice is rapidly melting, then of the drink made with the sturdy opaque brick of Névé ice. The second shows minimal dilution; it's essentially whisky served neat, but much, much colder.
"Every cocktail calls for different dilution, different ice, different needs," Dozois explains.
But Dozois's pitch isn't only about taste. He insists that less dilution also benefits a bar's bottom-line. "If your body can take this much fluid," explains Dozois, gesturing to several glasses, "How much of that do you want to be water? If it dilutes less, it will take you less time to drink what's in the glass, and the bar will make more sales."
Gourmet ice, often heavily filtered and hand-cut to guarantee the optimal amount of dilution, has officially become part of cocktail culture. Sasha Petraske, who in 2000 reinvigorated the New York bar scene with his speakeasy Milk & Honey, is considered by many to be the father of designer ice in the U.S. Since then, bars around the country, from Bar Agricole in San Francisco to Philadelphia's Franklin Mortgage Investment Company, have followed suit, creating cocktails that feature market-fresh ingredients, small-batch bitters, and large blocks of beautiful ice.
For Dozois, who honed his mixology skills behind some of L.A.'s most respected bars, like Seven Grand, Church and State, and Comme Ça, the ice bug hit while he was doing a guest bartending event in Chicago in 2008. Although he was using recipes he'd made many times before, in this new setting, suddenly none were quite right. "My cocktails sucked. I'm pissed," he recalls. "The ingredients were almost the same. The recipes, I know, I had them. They were great. That's the moment where you're like dude, what am I doing wrong? And you're flipping out."
It wasn't until he took a sip from one of the rejected cocktail glasses, by then just a pool of melted ice, that he realized the source of the foul taste. "l looked down at that and I realized, it's fucking shitty ice. That's what that is. The ice is fucking up all of my cocktails. Every one of them."
Shortly after his ice awakening, Dozois began tending bar at Comme Ça, David Myers's acclaimed French brasserie in West Hollywood, where the ice zeitgeist had also struck, meaning that part of the bar staff's daily routine was breaking down large blocks of ice into perfectly formed cubes. "We got into hand-cut stuff," recalls Dozois, "and it was pretty crazy. But it took the bartenders like three hours a day to cut ice for one night, which I realized was bringing down my hourly pay."
Entrepreneurial inspiration struck—Dozois decided that there must be a more efficient, cost-effective method for creating the kind of hand-crafted ice that bars like Comme Ça craved, and he began studying up. He read about Japanese methods for cutting ice to preserve clarity. He spoke to coffee pioneers like Lamill's Craig Min, who stress the importance of filtration in their beverage of choice, which is 98 percent water. He studied the science of dilution. "The larger the block, the less it dilutes, but with the same amount of chill." he explains.
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Though he won't divulge the specifics of the system he ultimately developed for Névé ice (he compares his need for secrecy to guarding the formula for Coca-Cola,) Dozois says the key lies in three principles—filtration, aging, and shape. The water is filtered twice, using reverse osmosis, through which he says the company loses about eight ounces of water for every one ounce preserved. Once purified, the water is then frozen, where it is aged for at least 48 hours, increasing its density and making it colder and stronger. Though other ice connoisseurs don't age their frozen cubes, Dozois considers this step so integral to his product that he took the name Névé, the word for compacted snow that ultimately becomes glacial ice.
The ice is then cut into one of four different products. "Every cocktail calls for different dilution, different ice, different needs," Dozois explains. In addition to the Old Fashioned cubes, Névé also makes sells a longer, narrower Tom Collins cube made for high ball glasses, and a sexy orb-shaped version, modeled after Japanese ice spheres. Of all the products, Dozois has a special fondness for the "shaking ice," a small cornerless cube, which because of ageing and its unique design can withstand a vigorous joggle in a cocktail shaker without breaking. "You can drop it on concrete," Dozois says. "It might crack, but it doesn't explode." Its sturdiness is particularly essential because, as Dozois explains, "Anything that is served in a cocktail glass will only get warmer. You have to make sure that it's at its coldest with the least amount of dilution possible."
Névé's unique products have been making inroads in L.A.'s cocktail community. The cubes have made cameos on Mad Men, are sold for home use at area wine and spirits shops, and are behind the bars of some of the city's swankest lounges, like the Roosevelt Hotel's Library Bar and Bottega Louie. But Dozois admits that selling ice is a difficult business—some bar owners take convincing that Névé cubes are more cost-effective than making ice in-house or using high-tech ice machines like the $4,500 Kold-Draft (Dozois insists that with the cost of maintenance and electricity, he offers a better deal). Others still need to be persuaded of the importance of ice altogether. Which is where Dozois's watching-the-ice-melt marketing method comes into play. "It's all a scientific experiment. I can talk until I'm blue in the face about how good Névé is. But unless you taste it you won't give a fuck."