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."
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