When mixologists have exhausted the ingredients, the glassware, its rim, foam, smoke and everything in between, they turn to the next best thing: artesian ice. By Joyce Yip.

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When mixologists have exhausted the ingredients, the glassware, its rim, foam, smoke and everything in between, they turn to the next best thing: artesian ice. By Joyce Yip.


JOSEPH AMBROSE – long-time bartender for W Hotels and new owner of Archipelago in downtown Washington, DC – spends most of his time during the day among freezers with chainsaws, chisels and picks. Aside from making mean Old Fashions behind the bar, he also heads up one of the few artesian ice distributors in the city that feeds untainted, crystal-clear ice in large blocks, spheres, spears and crushed chunks to around 30 foodie-destinations like tapas bar Jaleo and Capitol Hill seafood joint Hank’s Oyster Bar, whose bartenders – like Ambrose – have toyed with every other element of cocktails and have turned their attention to solid water.

Since the recent comeback of prohibitionera recipes (think reinterpreted classics like Manhattan Sazerac and Pisco Sour), cocktails have steered themselves back into the spotlight with the prefix of late, “craft”, which, altogether, mean concoctions whereby their ingredients are either made from scratch – usually by the mixologists themselves – or meticulously selected to achieve certain flavours (spirits, for example, are chosen for their distiller, year, origin).

This upheaval of craft cocktails came craft ice, something inspired from the ancient art of Japanese hand-carved ice spheres that have since revolutionised into products of heavy-duty and extremely pricey machines. Though mixologists have varying views on the importance of this elaborate commodity, craft ice has become the new standard of a good drink.

“Craft cocktails are basically cocktails that are made the right way; they’re the classic cocktails that came about in the US around a hundred years ago – they tasted delicious, but when prohibition came in the 1900s, they sort of derailed a bit. So what we’re doing now is actually bringing cocktails back to the way they were supposed to be enjoyed,” said Ambrose. “And ice, depending on what sort of bar you have, takes the drink back to basics because ultimately, cocktails are served cold and you’re trying to introduce water content into them.”

The major difference between artesian ice and the ones we pull out from our fridge is clarity; industrial ice is clear, cold, dry and void of surface melt and oxygen bubbles. Aside from aesthetics, this clarity also ensures purity in flavour, and their whimsical shapes balance, temperature and water content – or a lack thereof thanks to a smaller surface area exposed to the alcohol, compared to regular cubes or crushed ice. Though practice varies between establishments, highballs are generally paired with spheres – whose edge-less shape allows for a slower melting time while longer cuts are for Colins.

For any other happy-hour order, this may seem pedantic, obsequious even; but for a drink that’s meant to be enjoyed over a meal, an entire evening, a date, perhaps bartenders can never be over-scrupulous.

“If you’re getting a 21-year-old scotch and you’re putting it on some nasty ice or ice with too many air bubbles, you’re going to get far too much dilution, far too quickly,” said Chuck Avery, owner of Melt in New Orleans. “So distillers are spending centuries to make these brilliant scotches that are being absolutely destroyed in the process. There are many reasons why bartenders use artesian ice – it’s sort of where the ‘shaken but not stirred’ concept came to be – but personally, it’s about the extra layer of control. At the end of the day, if somebody appreciates higher quality experiences, there’s so much more to it than just a drink or just a block of ice.”

Artesian, however, comes with a price. Taintless ice could only be done if water is frozen while in constant motion and from the bottom up so impurities can amass at the surface to be sawed off later on. These features can only be achieved by industrial-grade machines powerful enough to make ice for sculptures: Clinebell, one of the few popular ice generators known for its efficiency of producing two blocks per every three days, cost close to US$3500 plus water and operation expenses. As well, clear ice can also only be born from clear water, which calls for top-notch filtration systems.

While Ambrose’s ice start at US$0.70 per block, Avery prices them at US$30 per 50 piece bag of standard 2”x2” cubes or US$70 for a 10”x10”x20” chipping block, which can total up to US$150 per week for a standard cocktail bar depending on its programme. So for the bottom of the food chain, the consumer, this means an extra buck or two USD per drink.

Though these numbers look surprising for a fancy cube of solid water, ice was, in fact, only previously available as a luxury as it was a commodity born only after the technologies for harvest, storage and transportation were invented. Before the arrival of the domestic fridge, ice was “cut in winter from northern ponds, lakes, and rivers; huge blocks of ice were shipped in insulated cargo vessels to ports as far away as New Orleans, Havana, and Calcutta,” according to Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails from the Lone Star State by David Alan. With the dawn of freezers, new tools and techniques began incorporating ice into drinks, and with them, came cocktail recipes for bartenders, and, eventually, the homemaker.

Though a fad in the States and parts of Europe, artesian ice has a long way to go until it becomes a thing in Asia – except, of course, in the mother lode of craft ice in Japan – mainly due to the lack of demand, space and trained manpower: i.e.: if property costs buckets in Hong Kong, probably best to use it for extra seats rather than storage space for fridges and monstrous ice machines.

“It’s really a lifestyle issue: consumers don’t have a lot of time to enjoy their drink; artesian ice has a low business return and yet, in Hong Kong, bar owners can’t really offload all the costs onto the patrons or else they’ll stop coming or opt for another drink entirely,” said Siva Ng, assistant product manager of Edrington Group in Hong Kong, whose top whisky label, The Macallan, was one of the first few luxury brands to launch an ice-ball machine for the home.

Though industrial ice has yet to make its way to the East, cocktails have been climbing up the professional ladder as more pairing menus are born, which, both Ambrose and Avery would agree, are the next milestones for cocktails.

“It’s definitely shedding the playful image that it has been reputable for, but cocktails are still not the ideal choice for food pairings because of their inherent overwhelming sense of surprise. Whiskeys and wines are different – guests expect certain flavours to touch their lips, to react to their food; but the element of unknown is just too huge for cocktails, which could be a disadvantage to both the food and the drink,” said Ng.

“Cocktails are fast-changing: the trends spark in the States, in Europe, in Japan, then they sweep to Taiwan, Singapore and maybe Hong Kong; but mixologists get bored very easily, so we’re always thinking of new boundaries to break, even though the last fad may not have even trickled down to the consumer yet. It’s now ice, next may be the glass, may be some specific ingredients, who knows?”

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