Spending all that time and effort on the perfect cocktail ingredients, then using half-melted, chlorine-infused ice is as ridiculous as putting a nodding dog in a Porsche. Time to tune in, turn on and chill out, says Alice Lascelles
When the first imported ice blocks arrived in the UK from North America in the 1840s, the crowds reportedly flocked to marvel at their size and clarity. Today, you’d need more than a simple ice cube to stop the traffic – but that hasn’t stopped a growing number of bars from taking their ice very seriously indeed. Flaked, cracked, carved, shaved, double-frozen, flavoured, powdered and imported – there is now ice out there for every palate. And even among those bars that aren’t in a position to stock six types of ice on a nightly basis, the simple cube has undergone a transformation, mainly thanks to better equipment, improved water and a greater appreciation of the science bit behind the cooling and dilution of cocktails.
TEST THE WATER
‘You should treat ice like you would any other ingredient,’ insists Robert Wood, bar manager of the award-winning Kenilworth in Warwickshire, which has made ice a key selling-point on its cocktail list. ‘What’s the point of making your own syrups and juices and using the best spirits, only to then use dirty ice, or ice that’s half melted in it?’
Getting the raw materials right is essential, says Wood. ‘We’re in a hard water area so we have a water softener on the back of the ice machine – our machine is a Hoshizaki, the Japanese brand. I use this for ice in most of our regular cocktails, while for more delicate drinks like Martinis, I use ice made from double-frozen Fiji mineral water, which I like because it’s never been touched by human hands.’ For the house water, a local mineral water, Wood preserves the character by adding no ice at all and simply serving it chilled.
It all sounds rather labour-intensive, not to mention more expensive, but Wood insists it’s worth it. ‘It’s true, it puts a little bit of a dent in our GP, but the resulting quality of the drinks means we get people coming back time and time again,’ he says, ‘and in a small town, with a strong business clientele like we have, that’s important.’
At the more theatrical end of the scale, Wood has also created a range of ice ball cocktails which offer a trade-up for guests in the more intimate Blue Dog cocktail lounge. Designed for spirits that deserve sipping and savouring, they include a luxury Dark ‘n’ Stormy, served as a shot of Goslings Family Reserve which the guest can pour over an ice ball made from homemade ginger beer and lime juice (made by simply beating the air out of the ginger beer with a whisk and freezing it with the juice in one of Muji’s now sadly defunct spherical ice moulds). Alternatively, there’s a Cosmo-inflected Martini, made from Belvedere Cytrus briefly stirred with ice cubes made from Cointreau, lime oil and cranberry juice, and a Mai Tai, still in the pipeline, featuring rum poured over crushed ice made from a Mai Tai mix.
‘Some guests look a little bemused when I start talking about ice,’ admits Wood – who laces our conversation with hard-sounding terms like ‘osmosis gradient’ and ‘thermal conduction’ – ‘in which case I’ll suggest something else, but other people love it, it gives them something to talk about.’
For those who missed out on the Muji moulds, Macallan has now launched its very own Macallan Ice Baller, a rather sexier (but far more expensive) copper contraption which turns blocks into spheres by conducting heat towards the ice, producing a tennis ball-sized sphere that lasts between two and three hours. My only complaint is that the icy globe tends to roll down the glass and bash you on the nose, but this doesn’t seem to have put off the growing number of glaciophiles now queuing up to get their hands on one of these gadgets. Currently being trialled in 10 bars around the UK including Quo Vadis and Milk & Honey, the Ice Baller is set to sell for around £650 – for enquiries contact Maxxium on 01786 430500.
Alternatively you may want to go that bit further and invest in a personalised mould from Japanese manufacturer Taisin (which is available online from www.japantrendsshop.com).
Originators of the copper method used by Macallan, Taisin will incorporate the logo of your choice, and come highly recommended by Flavio Carenzi, bar manager of Nobu Berkeley.
MAKING A SNOW OF IT
But if it’s theatre you’re after, then you can’t beat a ball that’s carved by hand, and none do this better than the bartenders of Tokyo. Blessed with teensy bars and a high-rolling clientele, they get more opportunity to practice than most, but it’s still impressive to witness the likes of Mr Ueno, head bartender of Tokyo’s tiny Star Bar, as he transforms a block of ice into a sphere or gem-shaped ‘brilliant’ in a matter of minutes, using nothing more than a well-worn pocket knife.
‘The Japanese think of ice as a tool,’ Mr Ueno told me on a visit last year, before producing a scrapbook full of pictures of the plant where the Star Bar’s ice is made. ‘We have our ice frozen over three days so it is very cold, very hard and very clear – and then we keep it at -20˚C,’ he said proudly, highlighting a cultural dedication to the subject which makes slow-frozen ice, capacious glass freezers and samurai ice-carving skills a must for any self-respecting Tokyo bar.
‘We have our ice frozen over
three days so it is very cold, very
hard and very clear’ Mr Ueno
The bottom line, however, is that Japan is much more geared up towards producing ice, and therefore luxuries such as the slow-frozen stuff cost a fraction of what they do in the UK. But a similar effect, at least when it comes to slowing down the melting time, can be achieved by double (or even triple) freezing ice – a technique that’s fast becoming a staple USP for high-end bars around the country.
Wood explains: ‘You simply freeze your ice once, and then take it out of the freezer and leave it for two to three hours, so that the outer layer is partially melted, and then refreeze it. This has the effect of forcing air out of the ice, producing ice that melts much slower.’
One person who has shelled out on the real, slow-frozen deal is Tony Conigliaro, who arguably kick-started the UK’s interest in the subject when he decided to make giant, crystal-clear bar-top blocks of ice a key focal point of London’s Shochu Lounge. Supplied by ice specialists Eskimo (www.eskimo-ice.co.uk) these glistening monoliths are then divvied up under the customer’s eyes using a hair-raisingly sharp Japanese ice saw.
‘Ice is one of the four key ingredients in a cocktail – no, in fact it’s the most important ingredient!’ exclaims Conigliaro, as he prepares to show me his latest experiments with ice textures, which he has painstakingly matched to different styles of drink.
First up is powdered ice, ‘good for sweet drinks, like Juleps, because it chills the liquid down really fast, diluting it slightly but without going slushy,’ says Conigliaro, as he smashes the ice up in a canvas bag using a wooden mallet. The resulting ultra-fine powder is then packed tightly into a Julep tin containing muddled figs and mint, immediately forming a hard dome which is more compact than the usual Julep made with crushed ice. ‘Then add the syrup by pouring it over the ice, so that it goes down through the drink,’ says Conigliaro, producing a Julep that consequently keeps an exceptionally steady concentration of flavour from beginning to end.
Next up is crushed ice, which Conigliaro advises using for acidic drinks such as a Bramble which require a little more dilution, followed by beautiful chunks of cracked ice, reserved for neat sipping drinks such as shochu.
And finally there is shaved ice, scraped directly off the bar-top block using a gadget Conigliaro found in the Philippines (pictured, above). This stuff differs from powdered ice by being less like a snowball and more like a mass of individual, translucent snowflakes.
Added to a champagne cocktail, it creates a delicate and very attractive icy suspension, a bit like a fine mist, at the top of the drink which, amazingly, barely melts over the next half an hour. Never formerly a fan of the champagne cocktail, I was won over by this variation, which which opened the flavours up, while preserving the delicacy of the drink.
PAYING A HIGH PR-ICE
But the prize for the poshest (and probably most environmentally unfriendly) ice of all must go to the Skyview Bar in Dubai’s Burj A1 Arab hotel. Unphased by the chills of the credit crunch, the bar is currently offering what claims to be the world’s most expensive cocktail, a $7,450 number featuring 55-year-old Macallan, served in a Baccarat glass with passionfruit sugar and ice cubes made of water flown all the way from the Macallan distillery in Scotland.
An inspired example ice at source? Or a simple case of cold-blooded commercialism? You decide…
Many thanks to Tony Conigliaro and the Shochu Lounge for hosting the shoot.
the ice is right…
‘The biggest mistake bars tend to make when buying an ice machine is trying to save money. It’s a real false economy. I often speak to people who are needing to replace their machine after a year or 18 months, when in fact, a good quality machine like a Hoshizaki might cost 30-40% more, but it can last for eight years or even longer if you look after it properly.’
GET THE RIGHT SIZE
‘Choosing the wrong size is another common mistake. Get
MAKE SURE YOU PUT IT IN THE RIGHT PLACE
‘A lot of ice machines don’t like being in a warm place like a backbar, so you’ll need to put them somewhere cool like the cellar, otherwise they sulk. The exception is Hoshizaki, which is one reason why I think they’re so good – they are very tolerant of different conditions and will generally work happily anywhere without any adjustment.’
LOOK AFTER IT
‘Just because it’s working well at the moment, don’t take your ice machine for granted. There’s a lot of bacteria floating around in a bar, particularly from beer, so clean it regularly to avoid a build-up of black slime. And make sure you give it an annual service.’
FIT A WATER FILTER
‘Wherever you are in the country, you’ll probably need to fit a water filter. Not only does it make ice with better flavour and clarity, but it also prevents scaling.’
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – March / April 2009