For all the variation across cocktail and beverage programs, ice is a daily requirement.
“It’s literally the universal ingredient in everything we make,” says David Strauss, a Washington, D.C.-based mixologist and bar owner.
Unfortunately, ice is also often seen as an afterthought–something that gets scooped out of a machine and into a glass without much consideration. But while fretting over ice is not the most glamorous part of running a beverage program, its importance is getting harder to ignore.
“If you want to be competitive, if you want to be perceived as offering a high-quality product, that’s definitely something you have to consider,” says Tara Gallina, co-owner and general manager of New American restaurant Vicia in St. Louis (whose cocktails are featured above).
“For most guests, their first experience at a restaurant is ordering a cocktail.” – Tara Gallina, co-owner and GM of Vicia in St. Louis
Strauss, who has nearly 20 years of bartending experience, opened Morris American Bar in Washington, D.C. last month. The bar’s operations include an extensive focus on how ice is sourced, frozen, and served.
Strauss and his staff hand-cut ice using chisels, picks and mallets. The ice comes from a twice-frozen block of filtered water that is stored in the freezer until the very last minute.
“It takes a little bit of practice to get it just right where you can move through it quickly without cutting the tip of your finger off,” he says.
Strauss’ ice program is the culmination of years of experimentation, which originally began as a home project and included a refrigerator that broke from so much use. Strauss eventually turned to buying ice intended for sculptures, which is pure and frozen slowly over several days.
Not only does it look great, but ice of such quality also tastes better since it’s made with filtered water devoid of metals and minerals, an important factor considering the amount of time and money most businesses spend on producing in-house syrups and juices to taste just right. Bartenders can also control how quickly a cocktail is diluted based on the shape and size of the ice cubes. Thin or uneven cubes, for example, melt quickly and can water down a drink faster than is ideal.
There are also plenty of options available for bar owners without the space or time to dedicate to manually carving ice cubes.
“If you have a nice machine, it does the work for you in keeping high-quality and clean ice, even in the busiest of days and nights,” writes Lu Brow, lead bartender at Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans. “In fact, I would advise in investing in two ice machines, one that would provide large cubes and the other that is an ice crusher.”
And even if new machinery isn’t in the budget, regular maintenance of equipment can make a difference.
“I think ensuring that the ice is clean and in good condition is an easy win,” says Alex Kloban, bar manager at Boston’s Bully Boy Distillers. “Cleaning out your ice machine regularly will prevent any color or impurity from entering your ice and prevent it from taking on any flavor.”
Both Vicia and Bully Boy use a two-pronged attack: a commercial ice maker for regular sized ice and individual silicon molds for larger format ice cubes, such as the ones used in stirred cocktails like Old Fashioneds.
As with any business decision, cost is a factor. Higher-quality ice machines and custom orders for individually-sized cubes can be pricey, while bringing the process in-house requires extra staff training and pre-shift preparation. The bottom line, though, is that there are ways to make a focus on this frozen water work within different budgets and business models.
And any investment is sure to pay off. Clean, picture-perfect ice can elevate perceptions of a brand and enhance the overall customer experience.
“For most guests, their first experience at a restaurant is ordering a cocktail,” Gallina says. “Paying $12 for a drink that’s filled with very generic ice that’s going to melt in five minutes doesn’t feel very good.”