It’s 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, and Shintaro Okamoto, ice pick in hand, is busy carving the outline of a rooster into a block of crystal clear ice. Requested in advance of the Chinese New Year, it’s one of a handful of similarly elaborate ice sculptures that Okamoto has been commissioned to produce this week alone—among them, a life-sized evergreen tree, a cartoonish squirrel statuette and a model of the Statue of Liberty, which will stand a little over six feet tall.
Okamoto, who was born in Japan and raised in Alaska, is a second generation ice sculptor, having been trained by his father, Takeo Okamoto, who learned the skill while studying to become a sushi chef. By the time Shintaro Okamoto was in high school, he was traveling with his father, participating in ice sculpting competitions in the U.S. and Europe before landing on the East Coast for college, first at Brown, where he earned a degree in fine arts, followed by a Master’s in painting from Hunter College. In 2003, after closing his own business in Alaska, Takeo Okamoto joined his son in New York to open Okamoto Studio in Long Island City.
Takeo Okamoto passed away in 2012, but his son maintains the studio, which continues to be widely recognized for its large-scale ice sculptures. But there’s a lesser known side of the business, too—and it’s powered by the bar industry. In fact, Okamoto supplies specialty ice for many of the city’s cocktail bars, which he sells pre-cut, either in cubes, spears, slabs and blocks.
“In Japan, they’ve been using custom clear ice in the bar world for a very long time,” says Okamoto, who began noticing an uptick in the demand for it in New York about five or six years ago. At the time, he says, bartenders were making a habit of freezing their ice in wide sheet trays, cutting away the clearest parts of the outer edges for use in drinks and discarding the cloudy middle, a process that resulted in a tremendous amount of work coupled with low yields.
Noticing a parallel between the needs of his studio and those of bartenders, both of whom value clear ice for its high density and slow melting point, Okamoto began connecting with key figures—Don Lee, Richie Boccato and Sasha Petraske, to name a few—to determine their needs. “We kind of grew a web of people who wanted to up the game with their ice,” explains Okamoto.
Today, the sale of ice to craft cocktail bars makes up an estimated 30 percent of Okamoto’s business. While he’s happy to keep that percentage relatively low (“I’m a sculptor, not a block maker,” he says), crafting cocktail ice has nonetheless become an important, and organic, extension of his work.
“I’ve always wanted to share what we do with that industry,” says Okamoto, of the relationship between the studio and the bar world. “We meet some really interesting people who really can appreciate and understand what it takes to do what we do.”