“Straight up or on the rocks” is a phrase that has echoed through bars for ages. It’s how we’ve come to think about our drinks. They are either served “up”—that is, without ice, usually in a stemmed glass, as with a Martini or Manhattan—or they are served over ice in a rocks glass, as with an Old-Fashioned. There are exceptions, of course, like the juleps, cobblers and fixes of the world, that are served over crushed or cobbled ice—but they are, after all, exceptions.
Recently, however, a new species has made its debut in some of the world’s spiffier cocktail bars. It’s essentially an up drink on the rocks; or a rocks drink served up. Either way, it’s an anomaly. And examples of its breed have been sighted at Dead Rabbit, Blacktail, Dirty French, Maison Premiere and Grand Army in New York, the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel and Artesian in London, and beyond.
When veteran bartender Tristan Willey first experienced the phenomenon, it was at Dead Rabbit. “It just confused me,” he remembers. “I thought it was something traditional.”
A reasonable enough conclusion, given that bar’s embrace of past drinking styles. The cocktail revival has brought back many an arcane practice—but coupe drinks on the rocks? There is no such historical precedent, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich.
“Drinks served frappé, with shaved or other fine ice in the coupe or cocktail glass, sure,” Wondrich says, “particularly in Cuban and tiki drinks. But the cube plopped in a stemmed glass? Not that I can recall.”
As it turns out, the tale of coupe ice is a tangled one that draws in three continents. But before we get to the how, let’s take a look at the why. Advocates of the style put forward a number of arguments in their defense.
“In my humble opinion, the ice makes the drink more beautiful,” says Alex Kratena, who adds that, during his tenure at Artesian, there was always at least one iced coupe drink on the menu. Kratena also maintains that the ice helps keep the drink colder longer, and contributes to an evolution in flavor as the ice melts.
“Uyeda always places one ice cube in his Gimlet after shaking it to show how the hard shake rounded the ice cube.”
Other bartenders similarly endorse the three-tiered advantages of the cube. “The reasoning is aesthetic, culinary and temperature-driven,” says Jesse Vida, the head bartender at Blacktail, where ice is added to punch-style drinks that are served in large goblets. “The ice not only keeps the drink nice and cold, it also changes the texture of the cocktail over time and, as it dilutes and gets colder, different flavors become highlighted in the drink.”
But such rationales don’t, uh, cut any ice with the practice’s detractors.
“With a coupe drink, you’re putting it in that glass and you’re presenting it that way because you’re saying it’s a finished product,” argues Willey. “If I’m going to have a drink that has a rock that size, we have a proper glass for that. Why not put it in a double-rocks glass? Putting it in a coupe makes it cumbersome, clumsy and almost impossible to drink.”
John Maher, the owner of The Rogue Gentlemen in Richmond, VA, agrees. “If that cube sloshes forward,” he notes, “you’ll be wearing your $14 cocktail.” (Maher thinks there’s also a more modern motivation behind the trend: “Honestly, I think bartenders do it for Instagram likes.”)
Vida has an answer to Willey’s rocks-glass suggestion, explaining that Blacktail’s punch-styled drinks, when accompanied by a large cube, would not comfortably fit in a rocks glass. However, putting the drink in a large coupe or goblet presents its own volume issues—one the cube handily answers.
“With the addition of a chunk of ice, the drink rises to fit closer to the lip of the glass, which looks much nicer than receiving what looks like a two-thirds full cocktail,” notes Jillian Vose, bar manager at Dead Rabbit.
Western use of coupe ice seems to have originated in London. Simon Difford, the British cocktail writer, thinks credit should go to Erik Lorincz, the head bartender at the Savoy Hotel’s famous American Bar. Lorincz first put the technique to use in his Malecon, a mix of rum, port, sherry, lime juice, sugar and Peychaud’s bitters. Again, his reasons were threefold.
“The idea was to give just a small amount of dilution as well as holding the drink temperature low,” he says. “Also the round piece of ice worked well as a garnish.”
Lorincz, meanwhile, got the idea half a world away, in Tokyo. There he saw the technique used by legendary Japanese barman Kazuo Uyeda. Greg Boehm, the owner of Cocktail Kingdom, a purveyor of high-end cocktail equipment, and a man long familiar with Uyeda’s work, confirms this.
“Uyeda always places one ice cube in his Gimlet after shaking it to show how the hard shake rounded the ice cube,” Boehm says, mentioning the notorious shaking style Uyeda uses. “[It’s] also for aesthetics.”
But even Uyeda claims to have adopted the practice from elsewhere. In his 2000 book Cocktail Techniques, he writes of his Gimlet, “Putting ice in a Champagne glass is the Tokyo Kaikan style.” The Tokyo Kaikan was a kind of assembly hall containing a variety of restaurants, meeting rooms and banquet halls. It was popular with business executives.
“Gimlets,” Uyeda continues, “were once made at Tokyo Kaikan with sugar around the rim of a Champagne coupe, the choice of glass made in order to make the presentation more beautiful. Due to the size of the mouth of the glass, the bartender would put a single piece of ice inside to keep the drink cool.”
Whatever the reasoning—looks, taste, temperature—one can’t deny up-rocks drinks are getting around and will likely continue to span the globe, as the bars that advocate them are not without influence. For those who remain irked by the practice, meanwhile, there are easy remedies.
“A friend promptly removed the ice from the glass,” says Willey of a recent visit to Blacktail, “and placed it on a napkin.”