Why Ice Matters

By Lauren Titus / Photography By Sean Kelly Conway | May 27, 2016
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Ice at the Ice Plant
Make craft cocktails even better with the right ice shape.

Along with homemade syrups and shrubs, artisanal spirits and grown-to-order garnishes, there’s another ingredient equally important in craft cocktails: ice.

Nowadays, along with a cocktail menu, many drinking establishment also feature an in-house ice program. While you may not specify the size or cut when you order your drink, a good bartender knows that the shape used can either enhance or dilute your beverage.

At this point, you may be thinking “Really? Ice making as an art? Who cares, as long as the ingredients swirling around those cubes are high-quality and tasty?” If you have just shelled out $10–$14 for a drink that quickly ends up being more water than whiskey, you might be interested in ice that chills without melting too rapidly, diluting just enough to take the edge off strong spirits.

cube of ice
ice of various shapes
Close-up of ice
Ice plant St. Augustine Florida ice

So what is the science behind the aesthetics? Most ice is created in freezers that cool water from the top down. As a result, air bubbles get trapped below the surface, so the cubes end up cloudy and not very dense. Enter the Clinebell, the behemoth machine used to produce 300-pound blocks of ice that is colder and harder than standard ice cubes. Because the Clinebell slowly freezes water from the bottom up, circulating the top layer of water to remove bubbles, the resulting ice is clear and dense, ready to be chainsawed down into smaller shapes for cocktails.

Ice Sphere at the Ice Plant

Since opening in 2013, The Ice Plant has been intent on bringing back the craft of ice harvesting. Housed in a building formerly used to manufacture commercial block ice, this St. Augustine bar and restaurant takes the process of freezing water seriously. As he shaped a chunk of clear ice into a sphere using a tool that might also double as a torture device, Bar Manager Zach Lynch explained the process. Starting with the filtered water used, the bar relies on three different types of machines, including a Clinebell, to create ice shapes suitable for the various cocktails on the menu.

ice in glass
ice and mixed drinks on tabletop

“Cubelet or pebble ice can be used for Tiki-, Collins- or Mule-style drinks, where you may want to chill down quickly, and shaved ice, which is kind of a more whimsical style, is great for adult slushy drinks. Bigger cubes go well in straightforward drinks like gin and tonic, or cocktails that are shaken,” said Lynch. “The sphere shape lasts twice as long as the cube, and it’s quite showy. It’s perfect for classic whiskey drinks, like an Old Fashioned. And the long rock or spear works well in highball drinks.”

It may be that after a highball or two, you are thinking how cool it would be to have crystal clear frozen water when entertaining guests at home. No room for a Clinebell or another industrial-grade ice maker in your house? At least get the home ice advantage by using filtered water. Or maybe just skip the ice and store your spirits in the freezer, to be served straight up.

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