In the age of the craft cocktails, there's a lot to think about when ordering a drink: What type of base spirit do I want? Should it be shaken or stirred? Is it served with a banana dolphin? Does the bartender making it have a properly quaffed beard? The last thing on that checklist of imbibing essentials is often ice, yet the best bartenders know that good ice is the building block of a great cocktail.
WHAT IS GOOD ICE?
"The ice you dilute cocktails with is about half of the cocktail, so if it's bad, the whole cocktail is ruined," says Micah Melton, beverage director at The Aviary. The Alinea Group's Fulton Market bar was one of the first in Chicago to institute a serious ice program, and currently it utilizes 38 flavors, shapes and sizes. People scoffed when it sought out an "ice chef," but since 2011, others have followed in its footsteps—installing Clinebell machines that produce crystal-clear, 300-pound blocks of ice to be sawed and chipped away for cocktails.
The labor-intensive process makes all the difference between good ice and bad ice. Clear ice lacks impurities and air bubbles. The dense ice chills a drink more efficiently without diluting it. Some dilution helps take the edge off spicy rye or combine a cobbler, for example. Too much dilution too quickly results in watered down drinks, which is not what you want after forking over $14. Achieving the aforementioned ice, however, is not as easy, or inexpensive, as it may seem.
GreenRiver in Streeterville and The Sixth in Lincoln Square both opened with in-house ice programs. At the former, head bartender Julia Momose is versed in the importance of ice. Her résumé includes The Aviary and an affinity for Japanese-style bartending that pioneered hand-carved ice. "It's nice for stirred cocktails to keep that beautiful, viscous, almost round feel on the palate. Having a larger piece of ice that melts more slowly is ideal for something like that to keep it spirit-forward," she says. "And then, for a bright, refreshing cocktail, having more ice in there adds to the texture of the drink."
Take the "Lake Whiskey": a rye and rum cocktail made with port, black plum liquor and cranberry syrup. "It's very bold," Momose says. The drink utilizes an oversized rocks glass to fit what Momose calls gumdrop ice—a large chunk of hand-chipped ice with a flat base. "If this cocktail were to be served up, it probably would be too rich...having ice that slowly melts into the drink makes it more enjoyable for a longer period of time."
ON THE ROCKS
At The Sixth, Doris steals the show. The floral riff on a gin and tonic features a rose suspended in ice. It earned the nickname the "Beauty and the Beast" because the clear cocktail combined with the clear ice creates the illusion of a rose spinning in mid-air, encapsulated by a highball glass. The rose acts as a visual cue eluding to the flavors of the drink—gin, lemon and flower water that is applied via an antique perfume sprayer.
Beverage director Benjamin Schiller also uses ice to alter the flavor of cocktails. The "Silly Rabbit" serves the classic Southside (gin and lemon) over four flavored cubes, each representing a different piece of Trix cereal. As the ice melts, the drink becomes fruitier—a rare example of rapidly melting ice being a good thing. Guests have two options when it comes to drinking the colorful concoction. One: drink slowly and let the ice melt, revealing a fruitier cocktail with every sip. Two: chug and order a refill or topper of sparking wine over the rainbow ice.
"To me, craft cocktails and ice is kind of like Starbucks. We all didn't come out of the womb preferring Sparrow or Dark Matter Coffee. Usually, somewhere in junior high, high school, college there was a bridge. For the most part, it's Starbucks. Once you have that Starbucks, you don't go back to instant coffee, or, if you do, it's tough," Schiller says. "I think that's what it is with the ice. Once you have a good Old Fashioned over one big piece of ice with good whiskey, it's hard to pay relatively the same amount of money at some corner bar where the cherries have been there since Carter was in office."
THE PRICE OF ICE
The benefits of an in-house ice program are not only sensory. The financial upside can be significant. The Clinebell machine produces two clear blocks of ice over a period of three days by freezing from the bottom up and circulating unfrozen water over the top with built-in fans. One of those bad boys costs $3,400. A bar such as The Aviary goes through four blocks a week, which would cost $125 each if purchased from an outside source.
Bars with in-house programs also utilize a crane to lift the blocks produced by the Clinebell, a band saw to cut them and a dedicated walk-in freezer. That's on top of a Hoshizaki or Kold Draft machine to produce standard cubed and crushed ice. However, most don't have the 100 square-feet of space and days of manpower needed to execute an ice program. Enter JustIce, the three-year-old company that specializes in what the name suggests: Ice.
Founded by Rosanna Lloyd and former Sable head bartender Mike Ryan, the growing company—which will expand into larger digs at The Plant next month—supplies 80 restaurants, bars, and hotels. Its ice comes in six different sizes, from mini-cubes to punch bowl blocks, which range in price from $0.33 per-cube to $4 per-block. The average rock costs $0.50 a piece. Ryan explains that this accounts for as much as 30 percent of a drink's cost, but believes that price is worth it: "The visual aesthetic of the ice creates a 'value-added' driver for the operator—if you place two identical Old Fashioned cocktails in front of someone, one on regular ice and one on a solid cube, they will almost always opt for the more visually appealing option—the large, clear ice."
Among their accounts are DrumBar, Sable and Three Dots and a Dash. According to Lloyd, It's not uncommon for cocktail sales at these establishments to increase after they switch to JustIce—creating something of an "I'll have what she's having" effect. "To see the care that goes into every element of the drink makes the value and experience increase that much more for the guest," Momose says. Proving that for today's cocktail bars, what is poured on the rocks is just as important as the rock itself.