The evolution of upscale cocktails has touched off a boom in higher-end spirits and mixers, investments in quality glassware, and new mixology techniques. But bartenders are also focused on another key ingredient: ice. Eschewing mass-made products from industrial machines or molds, many on-premise operators are calling on specialty ice companies—who provide crystal clear, large-cut blocks, spheres and spears to enhance both visual appeal and taste.
“A big part of any cocktail is dilution, and unless you’re drinking a hot toddy, the dilution comes from ice,” says Rosanna Lloyd, the president of Chicago-based JustIce Inc. “Specialized ice allows you to control or change the dilution in a cocktail, which dramatically alters the final flavor. When you upgrade to a large, clear cube you can see and taste the difference.”
JustIce has been operating since 2013 and had only seven accounts when it launched. Today, it sells to more than 150 bars and restaurants in greater Chicago, including tiki bar Lost Lake, steakhouse Prime & Provisions, and fine dining and cocktail haven Cherry Circle Room. Lloyd says her clients use the ice in many types of drinks, but notes that Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and top-shelf spirits pours are the most popular and usually feature a large block or sphere.
“Good ice has a diamond-like, shiny quality to it that naturally calls to people and offers a sense of luxury,” Lloyd says. “Consumer response has been phenomenal. Good ice, in larger formats, creates a sense of drama in cocktails and people naturally gravitate toward it. Ice isn’t something most people think about beyond pressing a button on their freezer.”
Lloyd cofounded JustIce with Mike Ryan, who’s also director of bars for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. Ryan says Kimpton emphasizes ice in all of its 80-plus venues and works with local ice merchants in many markets. When a local company isn’t available, Kimpton installs equipment to make higher quality ice on-site. “Denser, cubed ice means less surface area, which means slower dilution, so you get to keep the integrity and consistency of your cocktail for a longer period of time,” Ryan explains.
Matt Buttel, co-owner of Nashville Ice Lab in Tennesee, launched his company as an ice producer, but has expanded into elements for all facets of cocktails, from fresh-squeezed juices and non-alcoholic bar syrups to hydroponic herbs and bar equipment rentals for events and festivals. He harvests 350-pound blocks of ice and breaks them down into different shapes, noting that his two-inch cube is the most popular piece and that sales of the long Collins spear are also picking up.
“A year ago, I could hardly give our ice away,” Buttel says. “Now, we work with three dozen of the top venues in Tennessee. It took Nashville a while to get on board, but we’ve been fortunate. We’re in the heart of whiskey country, and if you really want to enjoy whiskey as the distiller created it, you need big crystal ice.”
In Washington, D.C., bartender Joseph Ambrose launched Favourite Ice in 2012. The company provides cubes, spears and larger ice chunks for punch bowls to many bars and restaurants in the nation’s capital, from the Asian concept Momofuku to upscale lounge 2 Birds 1 Stone. Ambrose says large-format ice has found a niche in his market. “Our goal is to serve and create well-balanced drinks that can maintain their quality while guests sip and enjoy,” Ambrose says. “Large-format ice makes that experience possible.”