t’s possible to find spirits of almost unimaginable rarity on the top shelves of bars around the country. A dram of Bowmore 40 Year Old single-malt Scotch, for example, can be had—if you’re willing to plunk down nearly $700—at Mews Tavern, in Wakefield, Rhode Island, and a glass of Hardy Private Collection 1802 Cognac is a mere $625 at Alizé, in Las Vegas. Something nearly as rare, however, will be provided at no extra charge when you order a drink at Lewers Lounge, in the Halekulani, on Oahu, or at the recently opened Pegu Club, in New York City: perfect ice. The discovery of fire—or, more accurately, the ability to create and manage fire—gets all the attention in anthropology texts, but ice might be an object of even greater obsession, particularly during the last two millennia, and particularly among America’s best bartenders.
Snow, often stored under straw for use in the warmer months, had been used to cool drinks for centuries by the time Emperor Nero decided he didn’t like the taste of hay (and worse) in his booze. Nero seems to have invented the ice cube when he put boiled water in a glass vessel packed in snow. (Could he have been mixing a Martini while Rome burned?) Bernardo Buontalenti—architect to the Medicis, creator of such astounding spectacles that the Papal Legate accused him of sorcery, and certainly one of the most creative minds of the Renaissance—spent the last years of his life administering the ice trade in Florence. And renowned food writer Elizabeth David's final book, published posthumously, was Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices.
Most of us take ice for granted until the tray in the freezer is empty. But not Dale DeGroff, who’s responsible for the Lewers Lounge cocktail list and its ice machines, or Audrey Saunders, who is a partner in the Pegu Club. Saunders worked with DeGroff at Blackbird, which is where she first used the Kold-Draft full cube, the gold standard in ice. DeGroff has put Kold-Draft machines in some of the best bars in the country, and he just bought a second one for the Halekulani. “A lot of bartenders mistakenly think that coldness in a cocktail is affected by whether you shake or stir,” he says. “That’s not the case. The ice itself is the determining factor; the drink can never be colder than the ice. Most commercial icemakers produce ice too quickly and the cubes are too small, so they melt quickly.”
This question of whether a drink should be shaken or stirred seems to come up constantly. Bad ice might be part of the reason. “Classically, Martinis and Manhattans are stirred drinks,” says Saunders. “But I’m hearing frequent calls for those drinks shaken because today’s little ice chips simply aren’t cutting it. Stirring with big cubes that have been freshly thwacked, that’s the way to go. A drink stirred over shattered ice will be delightfully silky.”
Another ice sage, Sasha Petraske, has recently opened two new downtown Manhattan bars, Little Branch and the East Side Company Bar, to go along with his neo-speakeasy, Milk & Honey. Petraske takes his ice so seriously he buys it in blocks. His bartenders then chip the appropriate size and shape off the big hunk as it’s needed, so your Old Fashioned is also old-fashioned.
Saunders won’t be using an ice pick at Pegu Club, but she’s no less ice-obsessed. “You want large cubes for something like a whiskey on the rocks or a gin and tonic,” she says. “The full cube is denser so it has a dramatically slower rate of melting. The larger the cube the slower it melts. And if you ask for something on the rocks you want it to stay on the rocks, right? Otherwise you would have asked for a whiskey and water.”
The ideal Scotch on the rocks, for example, would be served on just one very large rock—a piece of pure, clear ice just the right size to accommodate a shot of your chosen spirit. That configuration would expose the maximum amount of liquid to the chilling effects of the ice, and the ice would stay frozen a good long time. The only downside would be the difficulty in drinking it. Saunders has experimented with various ice sizes and shapes. “I have a couple of Japanese silicone molds that are designed specifically to make ice balls,” she says. “But they’re almost too big. Whenever I put one in a rocks glass, I'm reminded of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the massive boulder is rolling toward Harrison Ford.”
The full cube, measuring 1 1/4 inches per side, is a good combination of form and function. It’s big enough to keep your drink glacial without risking a frostbitten nose, and it does better in cocktails requiring rigorous mixing or chilling than do the more common half cubes or quarter cubes—or those odious ice disks.
Matching the ice to the drink is critical, and that leads inevitably to the vessel. “Drinks on the rocks should be served in a substantial glass, one with a heavy bottom that will hold two to three large cubes,” says Las Vegas cocktail consultant Tony Abou-Ganim. “A drink mixed with soda should be served in a tall glass so the soda stays carbonated from start to finish.” And he emphasizes the importance of pristine ice for the home bartender. “Keep your freezer as cold as possible and defrost it regularly. And use bottled water.”
You wouldn’t dream of cooking in rancid oil, so why would you use anything but clean, fresh ice? After all, as Harry Spitzer, head bartender at the Remington Bar, in Houston’s St. Regis Hotel, points out, “Ice is one of the main ingredients in a cocktail.”