Do you remember the first time you went to a friend’s house, maybe around age ten, and you were served a Coke with ice cubes made of frozen Coke? Or maybe you are the friend, in which case maybe you remember the moment you were sitting in the kitchen after school and you looked from ice cube tray to soda bottle to ice cube tray and realized that you were, like Alexander Graham Bell or James Bicycle, an inventive genius. Or maybe it hasn’t struck you yet that ice is a massive opportunity for innovation.
For the September 2008 issue of Gourmet, I wrote about Thierry Hernandez, the head bartender at the bar of the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris, who managed to freeze alcohol, a feat whose value was not made entirely clear to me by the alcoholic popsicle it generated. I loved his sheer excitement over his invention, though—Hernandez playfully put a finger to his lips and said he’d never reveal his secret alcohol-freezing method. It was as if he believed that I would run home armed with this technique and begin freezing the contents of my liquor cabinet simply because I now could; as if from now on, all my Martinis would be shaved off a block, and after very stressful days, I’d be found marooned at my apartment with my tongue congelated to a glacier of bourbon.
Some successful ice play is going on right now at Tru, Rick Tramonto’s high-end new American restaurant (and miniature modern art museum) in downtown Chicago, where wine director Chad Ellegood is not freezing alcohol and not freezing mixers, but freezing water steeped with herb, spice, or fruit flavor. His Manhattan is a sweet-vermouth-swished glass filled with ice cubes that bear distinct cinnamon and dried-cherry infusions. When the Bourbon hits the perfumed half-inch rocks, they erode rapidly, and the drink changes from a straight shot of bourbon to a looser, warmer, and spicier—but not sweeter—Manhattan. Ever since I tried Ellegood’s version of the traditional Iberian aperitif of Ruby port on ice, the cool, autumnal cocktail has been haunting my kitchen counter come early evening. Ruby Port, the youngest and least expensive of Ports, does nicely for this drink, although at Tru, Ellegood classes it up with a slightly more complex L.B.V. (Fonseca 2001 L.B.V., which retails for around $20 a bottle). He splashes it over a single ice cube, so the Port is just cool but not tooth-cracking, and to this he adds a drop of orange bitters. The twist is that Ellegood’s ice cube releases cardamom and clove as it melts—“If the ice is going to dilute, let’s have it offer something positive from the dilution,” he says—and what it offers, within a few minutes, is a seasonal change from summer to fall, from fresh cherries to spiced wine. Gimmicky? Maybe. But sometimes, especially when one’s inner ten-year-old gets restless, the wheel can be fun to reinvent. Just ask James Bicycle.