Designer Ice Adds Cool New Dimension to Cocktails

Erik Adkins spends a lot of time on ice.

As general manager of the Heaven’s Dog bar in San Francisco he’s very particular about what ice goes into his cocktails, preferring hand-carved chunks for slow-sipping drinks and oversized clear cubes for lighter concoctions.

And that’s just the tip of the ice trend.

Driven by the same quest for perfection that elevated bread, cheese and wine to objects of desire, ice has entered an epicurean age, coming in new shapes and sizes.

The ideal, according to Adkins, is big, cold, clear, clean — ice that doesn’t dillute a cocktail for drinks that are “snappier.”

The quest for cold perfection, at least in the United States, seems to go back two or three years, starting in Manhattan and dovetailing with the renewed interest in classic cocktails made with fresh and often locally sourced ingredients.

“We basically decided to go back and try to introduce what a cocktail was meant to be,” says Kenta Goto, head bartender at the Pegu Club in New York’s SoHo district. “It’s almost mandatory to pay attention to the ice; ice is very important.”

Some bartenders opt for an ice machine, with many favoring the Kold-Draft, which Goto and others like for its larger-than-average, clear cube. Others go old-school, ordering in blocks of ice that they cut as needed.

Big or small, the goal is ice that doesn’t melt too fast and is clear — not cloudy from air bubbles and other causes.

Adkins uses a Kold-Draft and expands his options by refreezing some of the cubes into blocks and then cutting off the larger chunks he prefers for slow-sipping drinks like an old-fashioned.

The push for nicer ice is global. Bartenders in Japan are featured in YouTube videos carving ice into spheres; some countries have bars made entirely of ice — chairs, tables, glasses. The patron slips into thermal wraps to stay warm.

There also are commercial products available. For example, AquaICE, based in Rogers, Ark., sells trays of sealed, purified water that consumers freeze at home. Company founder Peter Moenickheim, who got the idea as a bartender in college, plans to bring out lemon-lime essence-flavored cubes, too.

And then there’s Glace Luxury Ice Co., based in Northern California, which is seeking to carve a niche in the premium market. Glace ice comes in clear spheres, for elegance and efficiency, and are shipped frozen, packed in dry ice.

“When I first started, people would just look at me. You want to do what?” says company founder Roberto Sequeira, who got the idea about two years ago.

But, he points out, there are brand-name liquors and cocktail ingredients; why not brand-name ice?

Not everyone’s going techno.

Lesley Morris, bar manager at Angele in Napa, agrees ice is crucial to a good drink; her advice is don’t use too much and put the cubes in at the last minute to avoid watering it down.

But beyond that she’s OK with cubes that come from “a big ice machine in the back. We don’t have any of that fancy schmancy ice,” she says with a laugh.

On the other hand there’s Camper English, a San Francisco-based writer and cocktail expert, who has blogged about his search for clarity, melting and refreezing ice at home to see if that decreases cloudiness and experimenting with distilled water.

So far he hasn’t been too successful, but that hasn’t curbed his enthusiasm.

“Ice is one of the fun projects that cocktail nerds can play with at home,” he says.

He’ll go to some lengths for a chill thrill.

“One time I caught myself asking a bartender to see their ice when I was making my drink order,” he recalls, “because it was going to matter to me.”