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A New Ice Age

The Kold-Draft machine produced the clear, all-purpose cubes on which the cocktail renaissance was built. So why are bars trading them in?

“There’s only one type of ice I’ll tolerate,” declared legendary barman and drinks writer Dale DeGroff in The New Yorker in 1999. “That’s a big cube made only by a Kold-Draft machine.”

The American icemaker, long beloved by discerning pros for producing the slow-shrinking, emoji-perfect squares required to achieve shaken-or-stirred singularity, has long been a standard-bearer in serious bars, its brand name synonymous with quality. But as solid as this reputation may seem, the insiders who mix the drinks and sign the checks might tell you something different: For all its charms, the Kold-Draft can be a tempestuous, finicky beast.

Manufactured since 1955 in Erie, Pa., Kold-Draft once dominated domestic placements “in bars, restaurants, hospitals, and fishing and sporting locations, because of the long life of the cubes,” according to DeGroff. The staying power was a boon of design. In many commercial ice machines, the evaporator (the multicelled mold that forms individual cubes) is installed vertically, an orientation that can weaken the ice with air and other unwanted adjuncts. Kold-Draft’s “upside-down” evaporators are horizontal. Water churns through the evaporator cells at high speeds from below, rinsing out impurities and freezing in layers from the outside in—resulting in colder, clearer, harder ice.

DeGroff was first introduced to Kold-Draft in 1984 by the late restaurateur Joe Baum, who installed two of the machines at Manhattan’s Rainbow Room, the post from which the pioneering DeGroff helped spark the modern cocktail revival. During this era, a definite ebb in American barcraft, Kold-Draft had largely faded from prominence, ceding ground to cheaper, quicker machines that spat out smaller, faster-melting cubes. As DeGroff’s detail-oriented approach to drink-making gained steam, ice became a major talking point again—and he stumped for Kold-Draft so passionately in the press that the company brought him on as a consultant.

Subsequent (and subsidized) evangelism from DeGroff and his protégés sparked Kold-Draft’s post-Y2K comeback. Influential venues like Pegu Club, PDT and The Aviary opened with the machines—today, they’re competitively priced anywhere from $1,700 to $7,000, depending on size, model and source—and their endorsements rang out across the community. “I used to say at the time that the Venn diagram of America’s best cocktail bars and bars that owned Kold-Draft machines was a near-perfect circle,” recalls drinks journalist and ice enthusiast Camper English.

The firm’s success is unsurprising. Kold-Drafts, at peak functionality, produce dense, pure 1.25-inch cubes ideal in all facets of drink preparation. But, like a supercharged Italian roadster, these high-performance machines can also be highly sensitive, in the pits more frequently than any busy bar would like.

Pumps, springs, sensors, compressors—the common maladies are too technical to explore in great detail, but they’re real. “I’ve got customers that have Kold-Draft machines, and I’ve only ever been there once a year,” says John Silva, a Toronto-based provider of icemaking equipment and service. “Then I have other customers. And for them? It’s a nightmare.”

Francis Schott feels that latter contingent’s pain. “For years, I was the guy saying, ‘You cannot have a serious cocktail program unless you have a Kold-Draft,’ and that was true,” says the New Jersey restaurateur, who owns Stage Left Steak and Catherine Lombardi in New Brunswick. A contemporary of DeGroff’s, Schott fell in love with Kold-Draft at his first industry job at his cousin’s now-closed Town House Pub in Lawrenceville; in 2005, he purchased one to supply his own bars. “I don’t think it ever went three months without needing some sort of attention,” says Schott, who made a habit of filling up garbage bags with backup ice and stowing them in his walk-in freezer as insurance. A pricey tweak that moved the machine’s compressor onto the roof improved matters, but it wasn’t a permanent fix. Schott, who eventually made a very public switch to a similar machine made by Hoshizaki, adds that he constantly struggled to find qualified repair specialists to troubleshoot his various Kold-Draft issues.

Though popular among a cadre of well-publicized bartenders, Kold-Draft remains a boutique brand, meaning not everyone on the service side has the skills at the ready. “The vast majority of the refrigeration techs in the field have never put their hands on a Kold-Draft,” says ICEsurance’s Jeff Hendler, whose company leases ice machines nationwide. “You can buy the most expensive dump truck for a mining operation, but if you try to get it serviced at a Mercedes dealer in Scarsdale, New York, they’re not going to fix it for you.”

Part of the onus, too, can be placed on those who don’t quite know where to place their Kold-Drafts. Like any industrial device, ice machines cast off tons of heat, which has to go somewhere. Starved for square footage, bar owners might resort to shoehorning a Kold-Draft into a stuffy closet, alcove or kitchen corner, creating a pop-up hot box. “I’ve seen people put it next to a friggin’ oven,” says Silva. “It’s the same thing as putting a bag over your head and trying to run a marathon. You’re gonna pass out.”

Such points notwithstanding, some notable cocktail bars are beginning to look elsewhere for their ice. “Smart owners are moving away from Kold-Draft,” says DeGroff. Toby Maloney of Chicago’s Violet Hour has joined Schott in shifting his allegiance to Hoshizaki. In recent years the Japanese company has relaunched in the U.S. its own American-built horizontal evaporator machines, after ceasing domestic sales of these models in 1994. During his time at PDT, Don Lee became something of an off-the-books Kold-Draft diagnostician for industry friends whose machines were on the fritz. Despite that familiarity, Lee and partner Dave Arnold also opted for a Hoshizaki when they opened Existing Conditions in New York last year. “While it is the same concept, the sensors, programmability and maintenance are more modern,” he says.

While it may be falling behind in wooing a certain cross-section of the cognoscenti, Kold-Draft is still a highly recognizable name among cocktail geeks on the paying side of the bar, and this is cache it can build on. The brand was bought by The Legacy Companies in 2013, and experts like Hendler have noticed post-acquisition upgrades in Kold-Draft’s technology. “They have made huge strides in reliability,” he says, citing superior circuit boards and water pumps.

“I’m rooting for Kold-Draft,” says Schott. “They were doing something no one else was. But you gotta make a machine that works.”

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