The New Ice Age

In ice cubes, bigger is better—and clarity has cachet. A “leaf” in your cube could mean your bartender isn’t trying hard enough.

Chipping ice.
Union Republic owner and mixologist Noah Sexton hand-chips ice for customers.
Photo by Laura Moss

If you want to identify yourself as a dinosaur, just ask any hip young bartender for a whiskey “on the rocks.” Sure, you might get a glass with half a dozen small, cloudy cubes rattling around in it. But if your barkeep is at all au courant, you will get one big, mostly clear rock.

The name of the game is minimizing surface area. A jumble of small cubes creates a lot of surface area with little heft in any cube, so the ice melts quickly, diluting the drink and wasting a well-aged spirit. At Maritime Parc in Jersey City, mixologist and vice president of operations Jette Starniri uses silicone molds to create cubes that are 2 inches square. One of those bruisers, she says, packs the power to chill a whiskey or Old Fashioned quickly, “but it melts much slower than smaller cubes.”

Russell Lewis, owner of Watermark in Asbury Park, finds that 1.5-inch cubes work just fine. He places one in a glass for the Siren, made from Buffalo Trace bourbon infused with figs. The hulking cube, he says, “is a wonderful conversation piece. A large cube indicates a relationship between the spirit and the drinker. It asks that you sip slowly and enjoy.”

While mixology isn’t rocket science, it does involve geometry. A 2-inch cube, for example, has more surface area than a sphere with a 2-inch diameter. A 2-inch cube will chill a little faster than a 2-inch sphere because it has more volume, but it will melt a little faster because it has more surface area. Or, as Paul Tonaci of the Atlantic City Bottle Company puts it, “because a sphere has a homogeneous surface, it distributes its endothermic reaction equally in all directions.”

What that means, we think, is that large-sphere ice may be the killer app of liquor chilling. Small cubes are fine in a cocktail shaker because they do their job quickly and are then discarded. Some mixed drinks are poured into glasses packed with small “pebble ice, to dilute them immediately,” says Chris James, head bartender at Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown. “It creates a drink that evolves in the glass as it takes on water.”

Getting back to spheres, the high-end way to make that shape is one at a time, using a heavy, gravity-powered instrument called an ice press. While you can buy a four-sphere plastic mold from Bed, Bath & Beyond for $14.99, professional presses such as the Cirrus cost $700. The most prestigious press is the $1,000 Macallan. Name ring a bell? It should, if you know Scotch. It is sold by the Macallan whisky company.

An ice press consists of two metal cylinders, one on top of the other. Inside each is a hemispherical depression. You place a large ice cube in the depression in the bottom cylinder and slip the top cylinder over guide rods jutting up from the bottom piece. The weight of the top cylinder presses down, melting the hard edges and turning the cube into a sphere in 30 seconds or less.

“Copper is a conductor of heat,” says Michael Carrino, chef/owner of Pig & Prince in Montclair, who owns a Macallan press. “The downward pressure creates a friction that generates heat that melts the edges of the square.”

Bartenders now judge ice much as a jeweler would a diamond. Size matters, but so does clarity. Air, minerals and impurities trapped in ice make it cloudy. A leaf pattern indicates impurities or trapped air, weakening the crystal structure and making the ice melt faster. At Battello in Jersey City, bartender Raymond Keane boils bottled spring water from Tuscany, capturing the steam to create distilled water that freezes nearly clear.

The new frontier is block ice, hand-chipped, often in view of the patron. At Union Republic in Jersey City, owner and mixologist Noah Sexton fills a picnic cooler with filtered tap water and places it, uncovered, in his freezer. “It freezes from the top down, pushing the gases and the impurities to the bottom,” he says. “I remove it before it freezes all the way through. It looks like a clear lake. Before you cut the ice, it needs to temper a bit. If it’s too cold, it will shatter. Presentation is important. For the person at the bar watching their ice cube being chipped, it’s special.”

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