Cocktails

The Life and Times of Sphere Ice

December 05, 2019

Story: Jordan Michelman

Photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

The Life and Times of Sphere Ice

December 05, 2019

Story: Jordan Michelman

Art: Lizzie Munro

The history of crystal-clear ice balls is less a line than it is a circle.

On an uncommonly balmy autumn night in 2019, in the gloaming of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, a most peculiar pop-up cocktail competition took place. The star of the night was not Vanilla Ice, nor was it Ice-T, though both celebrities were present. That evening they dueled in the shadow of The LG InstaView Door-in-Door Refrigerator with Craft Ice technology.

Retailing at around $5,000, the InstaView is touted as “the first and only” refrigerator capable of producing ice in three distinct forms: classic cubes, crushed pebbles and that great totem of the modern cocktail experience, the ice ball. Finally unmolded from the silicone trays and aluminum presses of the past, the slow-melting, crystal-clear ice sphere—once a shibboleth of status and good taste at high-end cocktail bars—has found its way into a mainstream household appliance.

The path to this moment—two stars of yesteryear battling each other with riffs on classics served over LG spheres—is unexpectedly long and winding, carving a path from 19th-century American ice czars through Meiji-era Japan and into lower Manhattan’s early-aughts cocktail renaissance. The life and times of sphere ice is anything but a straight line—indeed, it’s more of a circle.

From the Persian yakh-chals (“ice pits”) of antiquity to Thomas Jefferson’s ice house at Monticello, ice has always been “a rare treat for the wealthy” as Brian Petro writes in his pocket history of ice at Alcohol Professor. In the early 19th century, Boston merchant Frederic Tudor pioneered the international ice trade, shipping New England pond ice to warm weather ports in the Caribbean, Europe and even as far as India. According to author Gavin Weightman’s The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story, Tudor helped to establish a consumer market for ice, changing the way we eat and drink along the way. By the mid-19th century, dueling American inventors like Andrew Muhl and Dr. John Gorrie had produced commercial ice machines, widening the market even further. “Ice became a garnish,” writes Petro. “Foreign travelers in the United States marveled at the wasteful way we flaunted our supply of clean ice.”

Fast-forward to today, where ice is the entire draw for some drinks—great big hand-carved wedges to sleek, slippery spheres. But how is it that sphere ice has come to symbolize the zenith of ice culture, while simultaneously becoming as ubiquitous as a suburban freezer staple? To better understand its trajectory, I went looking for the patient zero of sphere ice: the first known account of its use, or perhaps a little-known inventor who lay claim to its creation. I found neither, because like so many innovations, it was likely born of mutual revelation across the arc of history.

What is known is that by the 1890s, sphere ice had grown to be such a phenomenon that it was already passé. “Newspapers in Chicago were complaining it was everywhere,” says Greg Boehm, founder of Cocktail Kingdom, citing an 1899 article in the Chicago Chronicle from his vast archives, which describes “pieces as big as a toy rubber ball.”

That sphere ice has experienced a revival is largely thanks to Japanese cocktail culture, which kept the tradition alive through American Prohibition. Along with Scotch whisky, French food, British suits and American pre-Prohibition cocktails, ice spheres arrived in Japan in the late 19th century as part of the ongoing Westernization efforts during the Meiji Restoration era. “Ice balls were being made by hand in Japan throughout the 20th century,” says Boehm. “They never had Prohibition. Japan kept these traditions even as they were forgotten in the United States.”

And then, at the dawn of the 21st century, it was like a time capsule had been unsealed: Traditions preserved half a world away for over a century began filtering back into the United States. Opened in 1993, the Japanese-run East Village cocktail bar Angel’s Share introduced custom, hand-cut ice “long before most bartenders had even heard of Kold-Draft,” wrote Robert Simonson for PUNCH in 2017. Under the management of Shin Ikida, Angel’s Share influenced early cocktail revival destinations like PDT, Bourbon & Branch and especially the late Sasha Petraske’s enormously influential Milk & Honey.

Part and parcel with the reintroduction of hand-cut ice was sphere ice. In 2007, the international bar consultant and spirits ambassador Angus Winchester posted on YouTube what is perhaps the first video of ice spheres being hand-carved, witnessed on a trip to Japan; the same year, sphere ice appeared in The New York Times (a “billiard-size sphere” encasing a Dendrobium orchid at Daniel) and the Los Angeles Times (“tennis-ball-size” pieces); in July, at Tales of the Cocktail, Petraske delivered a landmark lecture: “The Importance of Cocktail Ice.” Google searches for sphere ice spiked over the next decade.

By 2011, the rush for quality cocktail ice had created a new market, with brands like Hundredweight Clear Ice offering a range of ice and ice products made specially for bartenders. “Ice-making companies, which all but disappeared in the middle of the 20th century, returned to serve this growing demand,” writes Petro. “Ice chisels, chainsaws, picks and tappers have all returned to the bar.” Richard Boccato, Hundredweight’s founder, says that sales of both machined and hand-cut spheres have “increased significantly since 2011.”

Sphere ice, specifically, became a status symbol for high-end cocktail bars the world over—the cocktail world’s equivalent of a La Marzocco espresso machine or a gleaming Berkel prosciutto slicer. Brands like Macallan began to stake a claim along the way, gifting aluminum alloy sphere ice makers (which retail, unbelievably, at more than $800) to its most exclusive accounts. Somewhere along the way, sphere ice began to strike some as a gimmick.

Few beverage nodes have followed such a full arc of trend—avant-garde to popularity to mundanity—with the zeal of sphere ice.

Portland, Oregon bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler recalls his first encounter with sphere ice at a private club in London, around 2008—“we all gathered around this thing like, holy fucking shit”—but notes the trend was quick to dissipate. “Sphere ice was so, so cool, but just for a second. Drinking whiskey out of an old-fashioned glass with sphere ice in it is like the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s this huge fucking boulder rolling at your face.” So often, practicality is the enemy of novelty.

Few beverage nodes have followed such a full arc of trend—avant-garde to popularity to mundanity—with the zeal of sphere ice. The craft of homemade ice balls is now big business. The Invisiball Kit by Corkcicle claims to filter out impurities and yield “crystal clear ice” spheres for $29.95; the glacio Clear Sphere Ice Duo promises the same for $39.99; the Food Network offers a range of officially licensed molds, while AnyPromo creates custom logo versions; the Cirrus Ice Press ($600), Viski Ice Ball Maker ($246) and Cocktail Kingdom’s gravity press ($159–$299) craft sphere ice in a heavy-duty aluminum chamber. And this is just grazing the surface; novelty ice randies things up with the likenesses of crystal skulls, Death Stars and various bits of human anatomy.

Though sphere ice found its way outside the trade, it never really left bars—it just trickled down from Manhattan, San Francisco and Chicago to now-booming markets like Knoxville, Houston and New Orleans. And just as Hundredweight found footing in New York, so too have PDX Ice in Portland, Oregon, and Fat Ice in Austin, Texas. Boehm reports that ice spheres have become quite popular in Eastern Europe, and even recently encountered them at a bar in Akureyri, Iceland’s northernmost city. It seems no distance or disconnect from its original heyday or Tokyo’s time warp can dilute the ice ball’s lure.

Which brings us back to the The LG. Vanilla Ice won the competition with a Cognac-whiskey flip, and the fridge will roll out worldwide in 2020. LG’s “Be A Baller” advertisements are currently airing on television and social media networks; you will likely have seen one within a few days of reading this article.

Brandt Varner, head of product management at LG, says the fridge will deliver “a superior home entertaining experience.” And perhaps it will. After all, with the revival of such unparalleled access to the spoils of cocktail culture the next round of innovation is just as likely to be lurking in a suburban kitchen as it is behind an unmarked door on the Lower East Side.

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Tagged: ice, sphere ice