Seeking Pure Ice

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Seeking Pure Ice

The international bartending community is divided by a debate about whether “artisanal” or “impurity-free” ice is a legitimate concern for alcohol aficionados or a ridiculous fixation for navel-gazing hipsters.

Sam Anderson, the beverage director at Mission Chinese Food, thinks it's "super lame, overly nerdy, and to no real benefit of anything." Leo Robitschek, bar director at Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad Hotel, disagrees. He believes it's an essential in high-end cocktail bars. We're not talking about a rare spirit or an obscure bartending technique. We're talking about ice. Crystal-clear, impurity-free ice, that is.

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The international bartending community is divided by a debate about whether "artisanal" or "impurity-free" ice is a legitimate concern for alcohol aficionados or a ridiculous fixation for navel-gazing hipsters. Meanwhile, one bartender is using DIY technology to master the crystalline solid that keeps our drinks cold.

Glassrox cutting ice mallet

John Longo.

About six years ago, the artisanal-cocktail scene became hyperfocused on ice. Impurity-free ice grew in popularity after a core group of cocktail buffs like Dave Arnold, Don Lee, and Alex Day pioneered the concept—which emphasized creating a super-cold, slow-melting product that has no cracks, air bubbles, or cloudiness. The impact on taste is a matter of dispute; some say it's significant, while others claim it really comes down to aesthetics. Ice suppliers soon jumped on the trend, using a special freezer colloquially called a Clinebell. It spits out two 300-pound crystal-clear blocks of ice every three days, yielding only about 1,000 cubes. The expensive, enormous machines use directional freezing, which allows water to freeze from top to bottom, forcing air bubbles and cracks down, where they can be cut off, leaving a sparkling, perfectly clear block of ice that's much harder than its run-of-the-mill counterpart.

John Longo, founder and creative director of Glassrox, showed me a popular DIY version, a technique frequently used by smaller bars. It involves an Igloo cooler and distilled water. He explained, "Impurities are always going to exist. It's just where the impurities go—you cut off that part."

Longo is experimenting with novel and convenient ways to make crystal-clear ice. He is looking into biodegradable insulation products made out of mushrooms. Longo hopes to find an easy-to-use product that permits high-volume directional freezing.

"Ice is a lot more than just aesthetic because it's a lot more than keeping [a drink] cold," Robitschek told me. Drinks' dilution rates are different, he added, and some, like a Sazerac, should start cold and then warm up. "If you walk into a high-end cocktail bar, and you don't get a nice ice program, then you're let down by its ice program."

Anderson still isn't buying the mania for perfect ice. "It's so much more important that guests are served and their spirits are lifted and they leave graced," he said, "rather than getting a chunk of clear ice."