Ice, Ice, Baby

By David Alan
Photography by Jenna Noel

Ice, the most common ingredient in cocktails, is one that we barely give more than a passing thought to—even in the dog days of summer. The frosty foundation serves two critical functions in cocktails: to chill and to dilute. Indeed, almost 25–30 percent of a properly made cocktail is water from melted ice. Some dilution is a good thing—can you imagine drinking a Manhattan without chilling it first? On the other hand, too much dilution makes for a watered-down mess.


As hard as it may be to imagine, the use of ice in mixed beverages is a comparatively recent innovation. There is evidence of ice being used in drinks dating back several centuries, though it was only available to the elite and was a seasonal phenomenon, as the technology didn’t exist to transport it through the warm months of the year. All of that changed in the early decades of the 19th century, though, at the hands of Frederic Tudor.

Tudor, known as the “Ice King,” is credited for figuring out how to bring frozen water from northern ponds and lakes to major markets. He built a multimillion-dollar business selling frozen water, and his ice traveled across the globe—from Walden Pond and Boston to the Caribbean and Calcutta.

Interestingly, the development of bartending as a career coincides with the rise of the commercial ice trade. Though the preparation of drinks for the public is an old profession—in colonial times it was tied to the hospitality responsibilities of innkeepers—as ice became more widely available, bartenders had a lot more to work with and the trade exploded with innovation. In those days, there was no ice machine cranking out convenient cubes; ice was transported in giant 30-inch blocks.

Bartenders had an arsenal of tools to break the big blocks into usable chunks: ice tongs, picks, hammers, shavers. Shakers and strainers followed closely behind, and even straws are a development of the beverage’s “ice age.”

By the turn of the 20th century, mechanical ice manufacturing had largely replaced the practice of ice harvesting. In the postwar years, icehouses producing large blocks gave way to ice machines making cocktail ice. Though some machines made true cubes, lenticular (lens-shaped) ice and dimpled ice gained the favor of bar owners because they melted immediately on contact with spirits, thus a pour appeared more generous than it actually was. While this was good for profit margins, low-quality ice became synonymous with low-quality cocktails. In order for ice to fulfill its chilling function without overly diluting drinks, a solid cube is needed. Thankfully, the industry is making a slow return to that standard.

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Some bar owners have begun manufacturing their own ice, one batch at a time, using metal sheet trays with water-filled silicone ice molds. Sasha Petraske, owner of Little Branch and Milk & Honey in New York City, is one of the pioneers in the modern ice movement. He uses a battery of customized silicone ice molds, which are filled each day and frozen in chest freezers in the basement. Standard silicone ice cube molds are modified to accommodate the glass for which the cube is destined. For beverages served in a Collins glass, for example, some of the silicone mold’s sections are removed to create an elongated ice cube.

For bar owners who deal in too much customer volume for handcrafted ice, Kold-Draft has garnered a cult following for being the only commercial ice maker that makes an honest ice cube—a solid, 1¼-inch cube of pure ice. Though the machines make the best ice cube on the market, they’re not particularly common. Visit Austin’s East Side Show Room, Lamberts, Péché, The Tigress and Malverde to experience ice at its finest.

The Japanese have pioneered ways of hand-carving ice from blocks into diamond-shaped gemstones, using very sharp knives and no shortage of patience. Inspired by Japanese ice-ball makers, Macallan—the venerable Scotch whisky maker—has created a device that can press a perfectly spherical ball of ice from a solid 2½-inch square block. Using old-fashioned gravity and heat transfer, the Macallan ice ball maker yields a piece of ice that’s not only beautiful to look at, but perfect for chilling the spirits without over-diluting them.

As the craft cocktail movement soldiers on, attention is turned to both the lost and forgotten elements of the craft, as well as to the innovations of the future. Whether you’re a bar owner contemplating the purchase of expensive technology or a home bartender freezing large blocks of ice in your mom’s Tupperware from the ’70s, cocktail ice is once again garnering the kind of attention that it did when it first came on the scene almost 200 years ago.