Ice Age: The unsung hero of the cocktail world finally gets its due

For a slideshow on how to make nice ice at home click here.

A guy walks into a bar, orders a whiskey of pedigree, straight. The bartender hands him a highball filled with a couple jiggers of the primo spirit. The customer looks quizzically inside the glass, where wavelets of whiskey lap against the sides of a single, gargantuan cube of ice. It is crystal clear, he notices, as he can see all the way through to the printed text on the napkin below. He takes a sip. Ahhh. “Cool,” he says.

We have entered an ice age. An age where ice, the until-now unsung hero of a balanced cocktail, is as important as the drink it cools and where giant spheres, long cylinders and enormous blocks replace the standard cubes. As proof that frozen water is the latest craze in the cocktail world, just look at chef Grant Achatz’s new Chicago bar, Aviary, with an ice program featuring 18 types of ice – from 1/8-inch spheres to 400-pound blocks and lots of specialty molds in between.

But you don’t have to hop a flight to Chicago to experience this arctic shift yourself. St. Louis’ cutting-edge mixologists are fusing science and art to create high-grade ice designed to elevate the cocktail craft.

Breaking the ice
Ice serves multiple functions in the world of spirits and cocktails. It is, of course, an essential tool for chilling a drink. But ice is also used to dilute an alcoholic beverage, an important element in a balanced drink. “When you are shaking cocktails, you want the right amount of dilution,” said Matt Seiter, bar manager at Sanctuaria in The Grove. “The reason that the right ice is so important is because you don’t want the drink too diluted, but you do want to dilute it.” Ice, he explained, adds another 1½ ounces to the 3 ounces or so of booze and other liquids that make up a classic or reimagined cocktail. “If there is no dilution, it will be really strong. The dilution brings it all together.”
Ice – particularly oversized cubes, flavored cubes or cubes that contain frozen fruit, flowers, herbs or vegetables – also plays a role in the aesthetics of a drink. “It’s eye-catching. It intrigues people,” said Seiter. Among the special ice that Seiter has made recently was a quart-sized block with violet petals, mint leaves, thyme springs, and lemon and lime wheels suspended throughout. The colorful frozen bulk became a focal point for a communal punch served at a private event. Another winner has been Seiter’s house-made flavored apple-vanilla ice cubes for a rye whiskey-based cocktail called Golden Ticket, one of the 150 cocktails on the Sanctuaria Cocktail Club menu.

At Eclipse in The East Loop, bar manager Lucas Ramsey received high marks last summer for the 2-inch-square cubes filled with raspberries and lemon slices that chilled a glass of his gin-based libation, Summer in The Loop. The cubes returned on the spring menu, this time holding Morello cherries prisoner in a cocktail called The Ward Seven.

The cold, hard facts
On a day-to-day basis, the frozen chunks dispensed from automatic ice machines are what bartenders are working with most often. The ice typically used in the food-service industry is shaped like a lens or else small, dimpled cubes or rectangles, such as that found at the soda fountain counter in fast-food joints. That type of ice, said Monarch’s head bartender Nate Selsor, is “horrible for making drinks” because it melts too fast, watering down the flavors instead of binding the ingredients together.

Bartenders want slower melting ice, which is achieved with a larger cube. “A larger cube equals less surface area. It will melt slower when shaking and drinking,” said Ramsey. To illustrate the point, he brought out a pint glass filled with diced cubes of ice from Eclipse’s ice machine. “Compare six or seven big cubes to the 78 cubes here,” he said. “More cubes equals a lot more surface area,” which is why Ramsey is hoping that the restaurant will soon have on-site the mother of all ice machines: the Kold-Draft.

Kold-Draft ice, recognized for its perfect shape (1¼ inches square, to be exact), hardness and purity, is the slowest melting ice on the market. “It makes the largest cube available and with the least impurities,” said Travis Geers, a technician with Area Wide, Inc., a local company that has been distributing and servicing Kold-Draft machines since 1977.

As Geers wielded a screwdriver to expose the guts of a brand-spanking-new Kold-Draft at the recently opened Taste cocktail bar in the Central West End, he explained that the key to Kold-Draft ice is an upside-down horizontal evaporator system. Picture an inverted ice cube tray (called the evaporator) placed upside down atop a molded water plate. As water is continuously sprayed upward into individual evaporator cells, the pure water freezes first while water containing impurities is forced out and discharged, leaving only crystal-clear, super-dense cubes that are nearly as pure as distilled water.

Other commercial ice machines tend to make wetter, less dense ice because they employ a vertical evaporator design whereby water runs over the top of the ice. “That puts too much air in it,” said Geers. “You’re freezing air into it. We’re pressurizing water into the evaporator versus running water over it.” What’s more, the cubes maintain that perfect shape (there is no “waffling” – extra ice attached along the sides – or breakage when the ice falls into the storage bin) because each cube freezes in its own cell instead of as a slab and then drops straight down with the assistance of gravity.

Sanctuaria’s Seiter is so serious about his ice that having a high-quality machine was part of the deal when he signed on as bar manager at the restaurant and bar when it opened in 2009. “I wouldn’t take the job unless they gave me a Kold-Draft machine,” he smirked. Similarly, a Kold-Draft was “non-negotiable” for bartender Matt Obermark when he agreed to manage the bar at chef-owner Wes Johnson’s new restaurant, Salt, in the Central West End.

Shaking a cocktail using Kold-Draft ice “aerates everything and gets it to meld together,” explained Monarch’s Selsor. “You can hear the difference when you are shaking with Kold-Draft ice. It’s a sharper ‘ting’ sound. It’s like ‘bing-bing’ back and forth. With crappy ice, it sounds slushy wet, like it’s rolling back and forth.”

Selsor also considers Kold-Draft ice to be a huge timesaver, especially important when business is brisk at Monarch. For example, he can begin building a drink in a glass already filled with Kold-Draft ice, step away to fill another order, then return to shake or stir the drink without worrying about dilution. The same couldn’t be done were the ice less dense. Another example of efficiency: When using Kold-Draft cubes, Selsor doesn’t need to separately muddle fresh herbs such as mint for a Mojito. Rather, he lets the ice do that for him when he shakes the drink, which is his preferred method for preparing the Cuban classic.

The Rock
Although it’s become must-have technology for craft cocktail programs, Kold-Draft cubes only come in two sizes. Yet more and more bartenders prefer larger cubes and different shapes for different applications. What to do when you need something bigger?

Selsor’s solution was to manufacture his own, one batch at a time. A specialty silicone ice tray makes six cubes, each measuring 1 7/8 inches square. To make the ice clearer and denser, Selsor used distilled rather than tap water and boiled it twice to remove impurities. The cube, said Selsor, is great for imbibers seeking a scotch on the rocks, and also makes a splash in a Margarita variation called Waxing Margarita. On Monarch’s drink menu, the cocktail is described as being “served on The Rock.” “People think it is a misprint. It’s not,” Selsor said with a smile.

While equipping Taste at its new location, beverage director Ted Kilgore was on the lookout for colossal ice. The softball-sized ice balls inspired by Japanese cocktail culture might currently be all the rage, but Kilgore considered those perfectly shaped spheres too labor-intensive since they require either patient, skilled hand-carving or the use of a specialty ice press, which yields one ball at a time.

Kilgore found a fix by contacting ice professional David Van Camp, owner of Ice Visions in St. Louis and a former chef-turned-ice carver who has been carving frozen blocks for more than 35 years. Kilgore asked Van Camp to come up with a design that fit the rocks glasses he would be using at Taste, and he rose to the challenge, delivering to Kilgore custom cylindrical ice measuring 2.1 inches in diameter and 2.5 inches in height.

The uniqueness of the ice, which takes five days to make, is not just its shape but its purity. Made using a reverse-osmosis process in Van Camp’s Kirkwood studio, the ice is so clear, it’s possible to read text through it.

Kilgore couldn’t be happier with his ice, and considers the choice to outsource ice manufacturing a better alternative to tediously making 2-inch Japanese ice balls in-house. “We are doing the same thing without all the labor and pomp and circumstance,” said Kilgore.

Imbibers can experience the velvety, sensuous texture and elegant shape of Taste’s unusual ice in mixed drinks such as In a Pickle (gin-based), Western Paradise (Kentucky bourbon), El Maestro (sherry) and Nirvana (rum). Patrons can also behold The Rock at Taste by ordering a high-end spirit, straight.

One question that bartenders hope to put to rest is any notion that all this talk of ice is just a crafty way for the guys donning vests and vintage ties to shortchange you of booze. Kilgore pledged an assurance expressed by numerous among his bartending brethren in town: “I will never short-pour you. Ice is there for a reason.”