Some months ago, after a particularly productive week of writing, I parked myself on a stool at Prime Meats, the since-vanished Brooklyn cocktail bar and restaurant, and ordered a congratulatory Old-Fashioned. I then posted a picture of the drink on Instagram, as one does. Some minutes later, a comment arrived: “You deserve better ice as a reward.”
This disgruntled commenter did not know that my Old-Fashioned was delicious; all he could see was that the large ice cube in it was cloudy. The comment was not out of character, given the source: Camper English. The San Francisco-based cocktail writer has carved out a niche for himself as a clear-ice zealot, preaching the virtues of directional freezing—a method by which crystal clear ice can be achieved—in both articles and seminars.
“It’s a huge aesthetic difference that can’t be discounted,” argues English. “Styrofoam cup versus crystal glassware. It makes for a completely different experience.”
Not everyone agrees. Tom Macy, the head bartender and a partner at Clover Club, the vaunted Brooklyn cocktail den, understands the glassware analogy. But it hasn’t led him to the same conclusion. “I love beautiful glassware,” says Macy. “And I love beautiful bar tools. But it doesn’t necessarily make the drink taste better. If you close your eyes and blind taste it, I defy anyone to tell me which drink has clear ice.”
In cocktail circles, some wars are decided quickly (fresh juice vs. sour mix: no contest), while some drag on for years, even decades (Martinis, shaken or stirred; oh please, not again). The issue of ice quality and form was arguably first raised by the late Sasha Petraske during the early days of his influential bar Milk & Honey. Petraske didn’t have room for an ice machine behind the tiny bar, so he began freezing water in large pans and then carving the large blocks of ice into custom cubes. Customers and bartenders noticed and the practice soon spread.
“Back then, the point was that the ice is big,” says Richard Boccato, a Petraske alumnus. “And I think that’s still the most important talking point.” Big ice looks better, but it also melts more slowly, leading to a gradual dilution of the drink, while retaining optimum coldness.
But size is no longer the only talking point. Boccato should know. He is proprietor of Dutch Kills, which, according to Boccato, is the first bar in New York where bartenders chipped away at large ice blocks in full view of the customer. He is also an owner of Hundredweight Big Ice, the premier Gotham purveyor of clear ice. Founded in 2011, it furnishes the likes of Dead Rabbit, Death & Co., Attaboy and Employees Only with the finest frozen water.
Hundredweight is just one of many custom ice companies that have emerged over the years, including Penny Pound Ice in Los Angeles, Just Ice in Chicago and Cristallino Premium Ice in Rochester, New York. Each uses Clinebells, the large-scale ice machines capable of producing enormous blocks of transparent ice. The rapid spread of these outfits has led to a clear-ice revolution, with Old-Fashioneds and Tom Collinses anchored by ice so invisible it nearly disappears inside the glass.
Mike Ryan, a Chicago bartender who co-founded Just Ice in 2012, thinks the value of clear ice can be hard to quantify, but he says, “You know that it feels right. Just looking at it, it offers this sense of authenticity and luxury.” Ryan refers to this quality as “The Old-Fashioned Effect,” naming a cocktail that particularly benefits, image-wise, from a transparent cube. “It’s a level of perfection you don’t get in everyday life.”
Ryan, who is the director of bars for the Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants chain, has noticed that a lot of hotel bars and chain restaurants have climbed aboard the ice train. For them, limpid cubes and spheres are an easy way to purchase instant street cred for their bar program. “[The hotels] haven’t attracted a bar team that wants to clobber a Clinebell,” Ryan said. “They just want to pull the trigger and get it.” (Ryan is no longer with Just Ice, having left in 2017.)
Today, those hotels may feel they need to pull that ice trigger to keep their customers satisfied. Bartender debates on whether clear ice improves the quality of a cocktail are essentially moot at this point, because the patron, consciously or not, has decided that it does. Like bartender vests and Nick & Nora glasses and house-made bitters that came before, clear ice has become one of the necessary requisites signifying a top-tier cocktail bar.
“When we first started doing it, everyone commented on the ice,” says Don Lee, one of the owners of the bar Existing Conditions in New York and a leading idea man in the cocktail community. He began experimenting with large, custom ice back in 2009, during his days at the East Village bar PDT. “Now, everyone’s jaded and expects it,” he adds. If you don’t have clear ice, “They think you’re a sub-standard establishment. That’s the crazy arms race.”
So maybe this particular cocktail war has been decided, with the spoils going to clear ice. Ryan estimates that perhaps 75 percent of Chicago cocktail bars are clear-ice converts. English went further when asked how many Bay Area cocktail bars use clear ice, saying, “All!”
Then again, it’s also possible that one battle in the ice war is coming to a close just as another is heating up. Lee pointed out that at Existing Conditions, where cocktail theory can get very granular, he and partner Dave Arnold are now engaged in a debate about the best form of clear ice.
“I’m on Team Machine Perfect Symmetry, to highlight the platonic idealness of a perfect cube of ice,” says Lee. “Dave is on Team Hand Hewn Blocks to show the hand of the maker.”