As the 300-pound block of ice ascends from the Jacuzzi-sized industrial ice machine, its edges crackle like broken glass. Joseph Ambrose and Caleb Marindin use an engine hoist to lift the flawless-looking mass, which you can see straight through thanks to a system that circulates the water, releasing any bubbles as it freezes.
Ambrose and Marindin rotate the block and lower it onto a metal table, here in the Bethesda facility of boutique ice company, Favourite Ice. Ambrose takes out a chainsaw and cuts through it, spewing snowy bits across the room. Marindin, nicknamed the “Eskimo” for his Alaskan roots, picks up a frozen brick with his bare hands and moves it to a table saw. He slides the ice through the blade, creating smaller and smaller pieces.
“It’s actually a meat saw,” Ambrose says. “Those blades cut through bone.” Marindin can break down a 300-pound block into about 800 two-inch cubes within a few hours.
The point? Creating the perfect cocktail on the rocks.
Ambrose, a bartender at P.O.V. Lounge at downtown’s W Hotel, founded Favourite Ice last year with Range beverage director Owen Thomson. Marindin, another bartender at Range, handles most of the ice cutting.
Favourite Ice is the area’s first outfit selling customized ice, hand-cut to specification, specifically for cocktails. Its growing client list includes Range, Rasika, Jaleo, Estadio, Proof, and Hank’s Oyster Bar on the Hill.
Fresh-squeezed juices, infused liquors, and house-made sodas and bitters have already infiltrated D.C.’s drinking scene. Ice, it seems, is the final frontier for craft cocktails.
While local cocktail scene pioneers PX and Columbia Room have sculpted frozen blocks since they opened, “ice programs” are only just now becoming a hot—or, uh, cool—trend in D.C. bars. At Hank’s on the Hill, mixologist Gina Chersevani only uses ice carved from 25-pound blocks from Favourite Ice. José Andrés’ just-opened “cocktail lab,” Barmini, also hand-carves its ice using a Japanese handsaw. And whiskey-centric Rye Bar, opening at Georgetown’s Capella Hotel in April, is already promoting its “hand harvested ice program” with an array of “chilling options.”
“Ice is the soul of a cocktail,” says Barmini “cocktail innovator” Juan Coronado. “You have your spirits, you have your ingredients—your organs, basically, in a body—that give shape and texture and aroma and flavor to the cocktail. But without ice, you have nothing.”
Not all ice, it turns out, is created equal. While the cubes in your freezer (and many bars and restaurants) are clouded with bubbles and cracks, the premium stuff is dense and clear, so it melts slower and won’t water down your drink as quickly. Hand-carving allows bartenders to create larger blocks that fit the glass, rather than lots of smaller cubes, which means less ice surface area and less dilution. “If you’re going to spend $10 to $15 for a cocktail and it’s on the rocks, you should have the best ice you possibly can,” Ambrose says.
Mixologists say it’s no different from a chef wanting to use premium products or state-of-the-art tools in the kitchen. “You could cook dinner off a hot plate, but you want a really nice stove,” Range’s Thomson says. “For them, it’s fire. For us, it’s ice.”
Aesthetics are also a big part of the appeal. “We spend so much time thinking about presentation anyway. Why would we leave out the ice?” says Thomson, whose ice offerings at Range include spherical “beef ice” made out of frozen veal consommé. Mixologist Derek Brown of Columbia Room and The Passenger says even the clink against the glass has a more satisfying ring to it with a dense block of ice. “You can say it’s just ice,” Brown says, “and you can ignore the fact that it’s a significant part of the drink.”
Brown was inspired to hand-carve ice at Columbia Room after observing the way ice is treated in Japan. Most bars there don’t have ice machines, so they’re more accustomed to large ice blocks and cubes, he explains. “In the United States, it became so willy nilly. People are just like, ‘Oh we need an ice machine. What’s the cheapest one?’”
While ice aficionados prefer larger hand-carved blocks for drinks on the rocks, for which they want to avoid too much dilution, bartenders are also looking for higher-quality machine ice. Kold Draft ice machines, which create denser, clearer one-and-a-quarter-inch cubes than other ice machines on the market, now dominate the cocktail bar scene. The advantage is that the dense ice doesn’t break down as fast inside a shaker, making it easier for bartenders to control dilution levels.
Sophisticated icemaking wasn’t always so widespread. When Todd Thrasher first bought a Kold Draft machine for the opening of PX in 2006, he had to go through the manufacturer. Now, there are three distributors in the area. “I would say that probably every cocktail-centered bar that’s opened in the last two to three years has a Kold Draft machine now,” he says.
A consistent supply of high-quality block ice hasn’t always been easy to come by. Talbert’s Ice and Beverage, a Bethesda beer and wine shop, supplies several cocktail bars with blocks of ice up to 300 pounds, but it doesn’t break down customized cubes like Favourite Ice. A growing demand for specialized, cocktail-specific ice is part of what motivated Thomson and Ambrose to start their company.
When he worked at Bourbon six or seven years ago, Thomson says, he would fill plastic trays with water, freeze them, then chip off misshapen chunks. “At that point I just knew that we were selling so much whiskey that if somebody got a whiskey and they wanted it on the rocks, I didn’t want to give them crappy machine ice that was going to melt in there.”
Now, instead of carving ice with hardware-store tools, more bars are using ultrasharp udon knives or specialized Japanese handsaws that are designed for ice sculpting. (Meanwhile, Columbia Room upgraded from a handsaw to a chain saw lubricated with vegetable oil.) Japanese copper or aluminum ice presses that produce perfect, clear spheres (and can cost more than $1,000) are also showing up in more bars, just as a slew of bartenders is learning to carve spheres and other complex shapes by hand. For example, Columbia Room bartender Matt Ficke proposed to his wife last year with a hand-carved ice diamond in a glass of Thomas H. Handy Sazerac rye whiskey. “She likes whiskey a lot more than she likes jewelry,” he says.
Favourite Ice charges 50 to 70 cents per two-by-two inch cube, depending on the size of the order. Chersevani, who orders larger 25-pound blocks and carves them down, says she spends about $120 a week on ice, which breaks down to about 14 cents per drink. She says she’d charge the same amount for drinks no matter what kind of ice she used; the real cost of a cocktail comes primarily from the spirits.
At Hank’s on the Hill, Chersevani has tried to prove that hand-carved ice can work even in a high-volume bar. “It isn’t something that you have to do one piece for one guest for 45 minutes. It’s something I wanted everybody to be exposed to,” she says.
Rye Bar, for example, has done a thorough investigation into the best bottled water for its two-inch ice spheres, which are molded by a milled aluminum Cirrus ice press. In an effort to be local, bar manager Will Rentschler says the bar sought regional water, rather than imported bottles. Rentschler taste-tested a number of options before settling on Saratoga Natural Spring Water from New York, which comes in a fancy blue glass bottle. He says he didn’t think filtered D.C. tap water was special enough to serve with a high-end rye whiskey: “We wanted to use a premium product,” Rentschler says. “This just seemed to be the one that had the most—I don’t want to say flavor, because it’s water, so you’re looking for a lack of flavor actually. But it tasted the most clean.” Despite the high-end water, Rentschler says the bar will not charge customers extra for the spheres.
While Rye Bar’s example may be extreme, hand-carved ice no longer is. In fact, Chersevani expects it will soon be the norm. “Once the standard has been set, and the cocktail world is more savvy, you can’t really get away with having an inferior product these days,” she says. And with that, maybe we’ve reached the limit on how artisan our cocktails can get?
“There will be something else,” Thrasher says. “It’s going to be all about the glassware soon.”
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Photo of Joseph Ambrose by Jessica Sidman