The Importance of Good Ice in Cocktails

Summit House bar manager Bobby Frascella explains why he hand-cuts a 150-pound ice block into individual cubes every week—and the difference it makes in his drinks.

Bobby Frascella cutting ice at Summit House in Summit. Photo courtesy of Summit House

Bobby Frascella’s been with Summit House since they opened in 2017. Maybe more importantly, he’s been with New Jersey ever since he first found his way to bartending—which, as Frascella tells it, was one of those “same old stories” where busboy becomes food runner and food runner becomes barback until “one day, the bartender doesn’t show up,” and the rest is history. Except in Frascella’s case, his career in bartending coincides with New Jersey’s own great leap into its cocktail future. “It used to be to get a good drink, you had to go to New York,” Frascella told us. “One of my goals over the last five years has been to make sure people know that Jersey has a great cocktail culture as well.”

Frascella is the vice president of the US Bartenders Guild New Jersey Chapter, and counts local talents like Robby Siebert, Christopher James, and Tad Carducci among his most significant influences. All of which is to say, when we see someone like Frascella quietly incorporating what looks like a serious prep-headache into his weekly bar program (see below: 150-pound ice block), we take notice—not because Frascella is a trend-setter, but because he’s a standard-bearer. And if his hand-cut cubes chilling gorgeous stirred drinks down at Summit House have anything to say about it, New Jersey cocktail culture has a new standard to meet when it comes to ice prep.

Table Hopping: I saw a much scarier post with the ice knife on Halloween recently. But this mammoth ice block I first saw posted on Instagram—what is it for?
BF: Our big blocks are for our house ice program. For drinks like Old Fashioneds, or any high-quality cocktail coming in a large-format cube. The whole idea of that large cube is there’s less surface area. It keeps the drink colder longer and doesn’t dilute it. So it’ll keep colder longer and maintain its complexity of flavor. If someone’s really sipping an Old Fashioned, it’s not going to taste like water at the end.

TH: How does it work? Do you make that big block and cut it down?
BF: I pick up a large block from Esposito’s Ice in Morris Plains. I pick it up once a week. That’s actually a quarter block—about 150 pounds. And that block normally yields about 300 cubes, give or take.

TH: How do you prep it?
BF: I cut it into slabs with that ice saw you saw on the Halloween post, then I take a butcher knife and chop those slabs into columns, then chop them into cubes. So each cube is cut by hand. Then we mix the drink in the mixing glass and pour it right over the cube.

TH: That sounds like a decent workout, but is it practical?
BF: It’s definitely a nice workout on the shoulders! The knife actually cuts like butter to this day. I bought it when I was at Jockey Hollow, so it’s going on six or seven years old. I think at some point I’m going to upgrade to a chainsaw. It’ll save time. But even now I can go from an entire ice block to 300 cubes in about two and a half hours. That’s a week’s worth of cocktails ready to go.

TH: And I have to ask about the knife, since Halloween just passed and it definitely looks like you found that thing on an abandoned camp grounds.
BF: Haha, no. It was a boring old Google search for “ice knife.” It’s Japanese steel. I forget the company name, but I know it’s also good for cutting fish, big fish, like at Japanese markets, massive tuna.

Bobby Frascella. Photo courtesy of Mason Levinson

TH: You’ve mentioned an Old Fashioned, but what other kinds of drinks would work with a cube like that?
BF: It’s all up to the creative style of the bartender. There are a couple cocktails that call for it on our menu now. It’s really good with the Jungle Bird, which is a rum-based cocktail with a little Campari, pineapple, lime juice, simple syrup. There’s a nice sweetness and a nice bitterness.

TH: What about Scotch on the rocks? It’s definitely whiskey weather, so to speak.
BF: You could use it with anything. Definitely some higher-end Scotch on the rocks. And when we’re chopping down those cubes, they don’t all form into the perfect cube shape. I affectionately call those pieces “chippies.” If someone orders something neat, a high-end bourbon or rye or Scotch, we’ll put some of those in the rocks glass.

TH: I also saw some evidence of smoking cocktails  on your Instagram. You seem to be veering dangerously close to “Fire and Ice” nickname territory.
BF: My nickname in this community is actually Bobby Fuego! I like to use the torch, whether with things like wood chips or cinnamon sticks or rosemary. Honestly any great bartender will say it’s been done for a long time, but it’s one of the things I really lean towards because I think a cocktail should touch all your senses, and breathing it in, it’s an instant conversation. For our signature Manhattan, for instance, we take an applewood chip and smoke the martini glass it goes in. That’s never gonna leave the menu. There’s also a cocktail that used to be on the menu. O.G. customers know about it. It’s called the Old Woody. It’s basically a bourbon and tequila cocktail—añejo tequila, bourbon, a little bit of yellow chartreuse, some house-made spiced maple simple syrup, and a large-format ice cube, but also a burnt applewood chip on top as well.

TH: Getting back to that ice cube, is it something we could try at home? Big blocks for stirred drinks and neat pours?
BF: You can make them at home, but the ice cube will never be clear. When you’re making ice cubes, oxygen is trying to escape while you’re freezing the water. That’s the cloudiness. We get blocks that are made with a special machine called a Clinebell. It vibrates as the water freezes. It gives you a crystal-clear block.

TH: So visuals are a part of it, too?
BF: When it comes to cocktails…I think it shouldn’t just taste good, it has to look amazing.

TH: One last question: the holiday season’s here. Anything upcoming at Summit House?
BF: We’ve already switched over our menu for fall. I actually have a pumpkin spice syrup going into the house Mule. It was kind of done in jest and it’s one of our top sellers. But come wintertime, we’ll have a lot more winter flavors. Blood orange, cranberries, rosemary. Baking spices, for sure. And we just started doing a cocktail class here. In fact, we sold out [for November 20], so we’re adding a class on December 4. You come in for a little lunch and a tutorial on a cocktail, how to make it, then you make it yourself. It’s a lot of fun. The first one was a huge success. I do a cocktail that’s not on the menu to make it more special. We did a spiced pear liqueur with a pecan pie syrup that I made and bourbon, served up.

TH: I assume nobody had to carve their own ice block?
BF: Haha, no. That’s my job.

Summit House is located at 395 Springfield Avenue in Summit. If you’re not sure what drinks come with large-format cubes, you can always ask your bartender what works, or request a new one entirely with their help. In addition to keeping cocktail culture nicely chilled, Summit is also taking reservations for their three-course prix fixe Thanksgiving Dinner from noon to 5pm on Thanksgiving Day.

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