When chef and owner Michael Nowak of the Black Pig told local ice companies that he was thinking of using Clinebell blocks to make ice cubes for his restaurant's cocktail program, more than a few of them had difficulties wrapping their head around the idea.
"You know, we make bags of ice cubes," one company reminded him. It was an understandable response given that Nowak was in the market for the same large format, crystal clear blocks used in competition ice sculpting. Undeterred, Nowak eventually found a partner in Olmsted Ice, which supplies him with a 240-pound block — cut into eight smaller blocks for ease of transport—every couple of weeks.
Nowak and his crew work on the ice one block at a time, first tempering the ice for about an hour before cutting it down to size with a hand saw. In the end, they'll wind up with meaty 1 1/4-inch cubes for use in Old Fashioneds, Negronis, and scotch, crushed ice for use in Mint Juleps and swizzles, and 1-inch cubes for just about everything else.
Miles east at the Katz Club, a block of ice is the centerpiece of the back bar. Ask for a Tom Collins and the bartender will use an ice pick to chip off a piece that's befitting a Collins glass. When those clear and perfect cubes appear in your glass elsewhere around town, they likely came from a Kold-Draft machine, which can run restaurants upwards of $10,000 and are notorious for breaking down.
So why go through all the trouble? As aesthetically pleasing as it is, see-through ice provides no practical advantage over the partly cloudy stuff. Size matters, however. Thanks to smaller surface area, larger ice dilutes more slowly than an equal volume of smaller cubes in most applications. As a result, you can take your time with your scotch on the rocks without it turning into a watery mess.
For Nowak, the ice program is just a natural extension of his attention to detail. "With our cocktail program, we're doing everything fresh and in-house," he says. "The last ingredient in the restaurant that we hadn't sourced the best of and done ourselves was ice."
"Ice chills and dilutes a drink," he adds, "but it's also a garnish in its own right. If a customer comes in and sees a perfectly clear large-format cube of ice in their drink, it sends the message that we pay attention to every detail."
Yeah, but what if they just want a vodka soda?
"We have well ice for that," Novak states.
Fancy Ice at Home
If all you do after reading this is order the Tovolo Perfect Cube ice cube tray off Amazon – or better still, its big brother, the two-inch King Cube – you're already better off than 99 percent of home bartenders. Nice work!
Gratuitously Fancy Ice at Home
Making beefy 1- or 2-inch ice cubes is child's play compared to crafting perfectly clear ice.
"Our vendor freezes the ice from the bottom up, which has a way of forcing air bubbles out instead of trapping them in," Novak explains. The opposite is true of our home freezers, where tray ice is frozen from the top down—often very slowly—allowing air bubbles to permeate and cloud the final product, something that no amount of filtering or pre-boiling can prevent.
The only surefire way to avoid air bubbles in your ice is to prevent it from coming into contact with air in the first place. Fill a small Igloo cooler with water and submerge one or more trays in it. Let this sit in the freezer for a few days before carving out the trays when they're nice and frozen. Better yet, ditch the trays entirely and make a solid block of ice. Remove the ice from the cooler and let sit at room temperature until it clears up. Cut away the cloudy portion near the surface for use in shaking, stirring, or crushing, and carve up the clear portions with a meat cleaver or heavy knife for other cocktails.
If all this sounds like too much trouble for too little payoff, that's because it is. For people like Nowak, however, going the extra mile is all in a day's work.