Made in Vermont… Ice!

All cocktails contain one common ingredient vital to their balance and integrity: water – frozen water. Ice plays an essential roles in crafting the perfect cocktail, and can often be overlooked. Ice not only brings, and keeps, your cocktail to the perfect temperature for sipping, it also provides the proper dilution to make your drink more balanced.

Some of Vermont’s top bartenders weighed in on the importance of ice in crafting their cocktails. With some tips from these self-proclaimed “ice geeks” you can take your home-cocktail game to the next level just by making a few adjustments to your ice-game. Or, leave it to these guys to craft you the perfect cocktail at one of their excellent establishments.

Sam Nelis, beverage manager at Waterworks Food + Drink in Winooski, has 3 types of ice behind his bar – Kold-Draft 1” cubes, crushed ice, and 2” cubes made from silicone molds.  Kold-Draft cubes are 40% colderthan your average “chip ice” ice cube. This provides the optimal, slower dilution of a drink.

Crushed ice in a tiki-drink

These machines produce the densest, coldest ice on the market, giving more control to the bartender. “Each drink is designed to go in a specific glass, it should also be designed to use specific ice,” notes Sam. A collins glass will take the Kold-Draft cubes while Tiki-inspired drinks use crushed ice to compliment those bright flavors, and typically drinks that are spirit-only drinks like a Negroni or Sam’s own Old Fashioned Mill #4 will get a large 2” cube in a rocks glass.

The Waterworks team will use warm, filtered water to fill up the silicone trays for these 2” cubes and can go through up to 100 cubes on a busy night. These help keep the drink at the perfect temperature without further diluting.

The Tom Cat Negroni at Waterworks Food + Drink

Jeff Baumann of Monarch & The Milkweed works with a Hoshizaki ice machine at the bakery cum cocktail spot that opened late last year on on St. Paul Street in Burlington. Baumann picked this top-of-the-line Japanese brand ice manufacturer because of the smaller model size that works well with their limited space behind the bar. Another main consideration in choosing the Hoshizaki was that it had a better track record than the Kold-Draft in terms of breaking down, which many of his friends in the industry has expressed about the Kold-Draft. Anyone in the restaurant industry can attest that ice machine maintenance can be a full time job! Similarly to the Kold-Draft, the Hoshizaki gives the bar more control in each cocktail.  “We wanted square hard cube ice for proper dilution and performance.  We feel like it gives us more control in each cocktail and in the glass it helps to slow dilution down a bit, which in turn, helps showcase the spirits.” says Baumann.

Jeff Baumann’s favorite, the Negroni. This one made with Barr Hill Gin.

Chris Maloney of Hen of the Wood Burlington also works with a Kold-Draft machine at their esteemed Cherry Street bar and restaurant. He echoes Sam’s sentiments that ice is an often overlooked ingredient. “Water is the great negotiator and most underrated ingredient in cocktails.” says Maloney.  When well executed, the ice in a drink can really catch the eye of the drinker. “So many folks ask about the large ice cubes when I serve, for example, our “Mr + Mrs Smith” cocktail with a 2 inch cube”, he notes. “It creates a conversation at the bar between myself and the guests and among guests, and fosters a greater appreciation for the cocktail craft, which is always a good thing.”

Another way to get amazing cubes and spark even more conversation around the bar is to work with large format ice chunks and hand carve them at the bar. No where to our knowledge in Vermont is practicing this at this time, but on your next trip to Boston a visit to Barbara Lynch’s Commercial Street bar, Drink, you can see the hand carving in action at one corner of the bar. A huge undertaking in cost and labor for a bar, but, given the space and money, can really leave a mark on your drinks and your guests.  Besides using silicone molds for larger cubes, Chris introduced me to the Wintersmith Ice Chest, which he uses on occasion behind the bar when he has a little extra time to create some truly noteworthy cubes.

The Ice Chest by Wintersmiths

The Wintersmiths Ice Chest or Ice Baller take “ice geeks” to the next level. In the most endearing art-meets-science kind of way.  Inspired by a particularly beautiful crystal clear ice orb at Bar Martha in Tokyo, brothers Chris and Pat Little, were determined to replicate it in the states. The pair, one based in the Mad River Valley, the other in Virginia, set about to invent their own solution. Initially launched by Kickstarter funds, The Ice Baller and Ice Chest hit the shelves in 2013 and 2014 respectively and have enjoyed a welcome reception from cocktail enthusiasts. Chris reiterates how important the right ice is in creating cocktails. “Aside from resulting in a better looking cocktail, worthy of your favorite spirits, using the proper ice ensures that your drink doesn’t dilute too quickly.”

But what makes the Wintersmith ice SO clear? By carefully controlling exactly how, and from what direction, the water is freezing. Chris likens it to a pond, where because the bottom and the edges of the pond are being insulated by the earth, the water is freezing from the top. The ice at the top of the pond freezes first, and any impurities or air bubbles are pushed to the bottom where they are the last to freeze. In their insulated ice chests, Wintersmith is replicating this process on a small scale with the insulation around the rubber molds ensuring a controlled environment where the ice freezes very slowly and from the top. Conversely, your conventional plastic ice cube tray freezes from all four sides simultaneously, resulting in cloudy cubes. I gave it a spin in my freezer ,and had to wait 30 HOURS for my crystal clear ice, but the results speak for themselves (and pair nicely with Tom Cat at sunset).

The ice sphere provides the most integrity in what I call “fancy ice”. Because the surface area to volume ratio of a sphere is less than that of a cube, the ice will melt even slower. With the added bonus of no air bubbles or impurities, your ice is less likely to chip and break up into small pieces, which would of course further increase the surface area and water down your drink faster.

In crafting the perfect cocktail, one must always pay attention first and foremost to the ingredients, selecting the finest spirit (we have a few suggestions), freshest juices and herbs, highest quality vermouths and amaros, and filling the appropriate glassware while using practiced techniques of stirring, shaking, slapping, what-have-you. While putting this much care into your craft, it would be remiss to disregard one of the core ingredients in each and every cocktail – ice. Treating ice just like any other ingredient and selecting the highest quality, and spending the necessary time and care to ensure its best execution has come to be expected in the industry.

A few extra steps can take your at home ice-game to the next level. 1. Use hot water in all your cubes (It’s science- the Mpeba effect). 2. Invest in a 2” silicone tray ($9.99 on amazon). 3. Treat yourself or a friend to a Wintersmiths ice chest.  4. Go out and drink cocktails! Get inspiration from your favorite bartenders, and just as you craft a fine meal, craft yourself the perfect drink, over ice, sip and remember, in the words of the wise Jeff Baumann, “Technique is hugely important in making great cocktails and proper ice falls squarely within that line of thinking.  Can you make good cocktails with shitty ice?  Sure.  But, to quote George Michael,  “If you’re gonna do it, do it right.”“