Whether you’ve ordered an Old Fashioned or some newfangled craft concoction involving muddled herbs and obscure liqueurs, one element can make or break any cocktail: ice. Cocktail aficionados wholeheartedly agree that a drink’s frozen component deserves as much thought as spirits and glassware.
“When it comes to cocktails, dilution and temperature are super important,” says Mary Valdez, lead bartender at Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs. “It’s the No. 1 thing bars miss the mark on.” She notes the frozen chunk is especially significant in hot destinations like the desert. “When you’re in 100-degree weather by the pool, you’ll want an ice-cold cocktail, but you don’t want that ice to melt really quickly.”
No matter the temperature, ice shoveled from vats behind the bar will liquefy quickly, ruining a drink in minutes. With cocktails becoming more extraordinary — and expensive — pouring a crafted work of liquid art over equally impressive ice is key.
As part of expanding craft cocktail programs, many venues incorporate artisanal ice, mostly those gleaming, oversized square cubes that fill a rocks glass. It’s not only for looks. The crystal-clear quality and greater surface area keep cubes frozen longer.
“When a drink has a ton of ice in it, each cube is diluting it, so your window of how long you can drink it is shorter, as opposed to one big cube,” explains Gordon Bellaver, co-owner of Penny Pound Ice, a Los Angeles–based specialty ice purveyor that distributes to venues around California, including Kimpton Rowan.
An ice-making process that removes impurities and air bubbles found in everyday ice — you know, the cloudy lumps that come tumbling out of your freezer’s ice maker — also results in denser, more beautiful ice that melts less rapidly.
Penny Pound relies on Clinebell machines (26 of them, in fact), which were invented to produce blocks for fashioning ice sculptures. The machines keep the water agitated to stop impurities and bubbles from settling in the ice. They churn out 300-pound blocks that staff handsaws into custom cubes of various sizes, such as the 1.75-by-2.5-inch square dubbed The Rock and the 5-inch-tall The Spear, both of which they deliver to Kimpton Rowan.
Valdez and her team at the hotel lobby’s Window Bar and the rooftop bar-restaurant 4 Saints use the behemoth squares — often branded with the bars’ respective logos — for single pours of spirits, as well as cocktails like the Highway 111, a bourbon-and-date-based craft creation. The attention to icy detail extends to Kimpton Rowan’s standard cubes, too. The bartenders filter water through a Japanese-made Hoshizaki ice maker to create 1-inch square cubes, which are used as shaker ice to cut down on dilution. “The water source is really important,” she says. “You can tell when places are using tap water, if they’re not cleaning their machines and lines, or if the water isn’t circulating enough.”
While bartenders ignited this cool trend, patrons now seek out the proper ice to pair with their cocktails themselves. “If you go to a bar and see a big, clear ice cube, you have a new frame of reference of how you can drink an Old Fashioned,” Bellaver explains. “If you go to another place charging the same price for that drink, it’s like, ‘Why don’t you have that big ice cube?’ Consumers are getting used to it.”
Social media also sparks interest. “At the bar, 60 to 70 percent of people take a photo of their cocktail,” says Yagmur Gursoy, hotel manager of Parker Palm Springs. “It’s almost like a dish, and I think people appreciate that now. There’s a story, a preparation, a garnish, the right glass. The clear ice adds to the look of the drink. It’s almost like, ‘Try me.’ ”
The Parker’s bar team makes large 2-by-2-inch clear cubes with molds each day. They’re typically served with top-shelf spirits at the property’s Mini Bar, which also services guests imbibing in the lobby and those dining at the restaurant Mister Parker’s.
“A guest looking for a [premium] brand, an aged blend, a single malt scotch, or even a unique tequila made for sipping that might go for $30 to $50 a pour usually knows the importance of a big cube,” Gursoy says, “because it doesn’t change the taste of the drink they’re paying top dollar for. If not, it’s on the bartender to explain the impact of that ice.”
As with many aspects of the hospitality world, ice often goes unnoticed … until it’s bad. “When a place throws a good cocktail on ice that’s shit or watered down, you’re not just wasting your money,” Bellaver says. “You’re also not going to enjoy it.”
The Shape Of Water
The types of all-star ice
Best for low-ball drinks, such as the Old Fashioned, Negroni, and liquors meant to be sipped. Bonus: The cube usually lasts so long, you can keep it for your second pour.
You’ll find these 5-inch-long guys in tall drinks, including the Tom Collins or a soda-and-spirit highball. The spear takes the place of multiple cubes that would fill up the glass.
Don’t be fooled by its beauty. The round, globe-like cube has staying power, too. It melts even slower than the large rock and can be used in lieu of it.
Better known as crushed ice, these are best for warm-weather drinks like mint juleps, mai tais, and other cocktails mixed with syrups and sugar that could benefit from a touch of dilution.