Don’t underestimate the power of the perfect cube. Your cocktail deserves it.
Legend has it that Eskimos have hundreds of ways to say “snow.” I’d argue that bartenders have just as many ways to say “ice”—be it spheroid, chipped, shaved, crushed, or cubed. Despite San Francisco’s rollicking love affair with the cocktail, however, its relationship with ice has progressed more slowly than those of other cocktail-mad places (namely New York, London, and Tokyo). But this is starting to change.
Should you think that all ice is created equal, think again. In a cocktail, ice plays an important role, providing temperature control and texture; it also helps carry flavor. If it melts too fast, it leaves a cocktail weak. The perfect crystal-clear, extra-cold cube has to be made of water that’s not full of minerals and trapped gasses. That cube isn’t as easy to make as it sounds. So, starting a couple of years ago, several of the city’s better bars, including Bourbon & Branch and the Alembic, purchased ice machines by Kold-Draft Industries—a company based in Erie, PA, that has been making perfect cubes since 1955. (Its website says that its ice is “colder than the freezing temperature of water.”). Because of their size and colder-than-coldness, the cubes take their sweet time to melt.
At the Slanted Door in San Francisco, the bar manager, Erik Adkins, has taken the opposite tack, making giant cubes (one almost fills a rocks glass) for the bar’s whiskey drinks. “I’ve heard that in Japan, businessmen will sit with a giant cube and drink one whiskey over an hour,” he says from behind the bar, as bar-back José chips and saws a clear block of ice into fist-sized nuggets. Adkins tells me the easiest way to get the purified water he uses to make the clear ice is to melt down the ice from a Kold-Draft machine and refreeze it into a giant block, which his employees then attack with picks and saws. José holds up the multifaceted, shiny hunk of ice, smiles and says, “Like a diamond.” (Not having the restraint of a Japanese businessman, I finish my delicious whiskey cocktail well before its hunk of ice has even had a chance to sweat.)
One day last spring, a friend and I wandered through the mostly empty Japan Center one afternoon, on the quest for large ice. She had a hazy recollection of visiting there, years ago, a bar at which her drink was cooled by a very large, very clear cube of ice, spectacular in its glistening luminescence. She had been told it was from a special, very expensive ice machine available only in Japan. Alas, as we wandered the halls, we weren’t getting any warmer. (Or is that cooler?)
Finally, we made our way down to a first-floor bar called Ikkyu, which was just opening, and took two seats at the empty bar. When we asked the owner, a pretty young woman named Kako, about the ice, she looked at us curiously and then shook her head no. “The old owner had a very special ice machine,” she told us. “But he took it with him when he went back to Japan.” Obviously, it wasn’t the kind of ice maker you leave behind.
The Best Ice for the Job
Finely Crushed Ice
Often seen in mint juleps, crushed ice deeply chills a drink, freshens it and lightens its texture.
For a caipirinha, Brazilians will traditionally break ice cubes into shards and add them to the limes before cachaça is added. The drink is not shaken.
Extra-Large Ice Cubes
Great for drinks that shouldn’t be overdiluted, especially whiskeys, rums or certain cocktails when they’re served “over,” such as manhattans, negronis and martinis.
The standard, it’s best used in anything that needs to be super-cold and drunk relatively quickly, such as gin-and-tonics and whiskey sours.
To crush the ice, put some ice cubes in a cloth bag or wrap them in a clean dish towel, then crush with a mallet. Alternately, place cubes in a thick-sided pint glass and use a muddler to crush them. Larger batches of ice are best crushed in a blender.
3 sprigs of mint
1 teaspoon baker’s fine sugar
2 ounces bourbon
In a glass, combine two mint sprigs, sugar, and two dashes of water. Gently muddle together, trying not to tear the mint leaves. (Overmuddling brings out bitterness in the mint.) Fill the glass with the crushed ice and pour the bourbon in over it. Garnish with remaining mint.
By Jordan Mackay