Eat & Drink

Why ice is nice: Kansas City bartenders say quality cubes matter in cocktails

Ice is a 'luxury' you shouldn't overlook in your next cocktail

Van Zarr, bar manager at Rye Restaurant in Leawood, is a true connoisseur of the benefits of ice. With a wide tool belt, one that includes a chainsaw, he crafts each block with care so that Rye's cocktails are both refreshing and visually empower
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Van Zarr, bar manager at Rye Restaurant in Leawood, is a true connoisseur of the benefits of ice. With a wide tool belt, one that includes a chainsaw, he crafts each block with care so that Rye's cocktails are both refreshing and visually empower

The temperature was pushing 90 when I stopped at Rye earlier this month. Despite the heat, the Leawood restaurant’s patio was exactly where I wanted to be. The attraction? Watching bar manager Van Zarr use a chain saw to turn a 100-plus-pound block of ice into bar-ready chunks.

Shavings sprayed from the 14-inch blade, splattering Zarr’s tie and melting down his arms. Clearly this wasn’t an elegant process. But as bartending tasks go, it was entertaining to watch.

“It’s easier to do in the summertime than in winter, when it’s 12 degrees out,” Zarr admitted. “Then, the last thing you want is to be outside with a block of ice.”

[Part 1: How the classic cocktail fits into the craft cocktail movement]

[Part 2: Choosing the right spirits for your drink]

[Part 3: Looking beyond sugar for sophisticated sweetness]

[Part 4: Bitter elements can provide balance]

[Part 5: Citrus is an aromatic flavor booster]

Zarr freezes plenty of ice in specialized silicone molds and uses some from the restaurant’s ice-maker, but he couldn’t keep up with demand for the gleaming spheres served with cocktails like the Old Square, a barrel-aged combination of rye whiskey, Cognac, sweet vermouth and bitters. So he began buying blocks of crystal clear ice from Grandview’s Cool Carvings Ice Sculptures and cutting them into rough 3-inch cubes.

Those are stashed in the freezer until a guest orders a spirituous drink. Then, a bartender warms a Japanese-made Taisin ice mold, centers a chunk of ice on the bottom half, slides the top into place and waits while heat and gravity transform it into a billiard ball-size sphere.

“It’s just as much fun to watch now as it was when we got this three or four years ago,” Zarr said.

He’s not the only one enjoying ice. So-called ice programs have proliferated around the country, with bars like Chicago’s the Aviary producing dozens of styles in a dedicated ice room and businesses such as Hundredweight Ice Co. in New York supplying specialty ice to craft bars.

In Kansas City and elsewhere, Kold-Draft and Hoshizaki machines (both known for producing dense and slow-to-melt cubes) are increasingly common. Bartenders routinely freeze water in sizable blocks to chill punches, and crush ice in canvas bags for juleps, cobblers and swizzles.

Ice is certainly worth the attention, said Bryan Love, owner of the Bourbonist, a cocktail catering company in Lawrence.

“People should care more about their ice,” said Love, who also manages the Red Lyon Tavern there. “It can make or break a cocktail.”

The W Bar in Lee’s Summit isn’t exclusive, but the door is unmarked and a seat at the bar requires a reservation. Bartender Mike Strohm serves updated classic cocktails, including many cocktails that are smoked on a patent-pending device which sit

Clarity matters

Quality ice adds beauty to a drink while both chilling and diluting it — twin goals that haven’t changed much since ice first found its way behind the bar in the 18th century.

“Ice King” Frederic Tudor also began shipping ice from Massachusetts around the U.S. and overseas about then, making it cheaper and easier than ever to sell cold drinks. Tudor even offered bar owners free ice for a year if they sold iced drinks at the same price as warm ones, according to “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink” (Oxford University Press; 2007).

These days, ice is as ubiquitous as it is essential, said Courtney Crockett, a bartender at the Brick who posts in social media as The Traveling Cocktailian.

“It’s not so much an ingredient as it is a tool,” she said. “It’s necessary in everything we do.”

That ice makes drinks cold is easy enough to understand, although if you want the particulars on the science of it, Google self-described cocktail geek Kevin Liu and ice or consult Dave Arnold’s “Liquid Intelligence” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014). Dilution is a bit trickier.

It’s part technique — shaking and stirring not only make cocktails cold, they also incorporate water from melted ice. You want enough to help bind ingredients together, release flavors and aromas and create texture, but not so much that your drink turns, well, watery.

Smaller, softer cubes melt more quickly, adding more water. Larger, harder cubes — cubes made in a one-inch silicone mold, for example — melt more slowly and so make it easier to control dilution, bartenders say. The same goes for presentation. Straining a cocktail over fresh ice in the glass means less melting; the bigger the ice, the slower the melt.

Size isn’t the only factor, though. Clarity matters, too, and much is now made over the importance of clear ice. It’s partly aesthetic: Clear ice simply looks prettier than cloudy ice. But it also stays frozen longer.

Ice clouds when it freezes rapidly, as is usually the case in home freezers. That traps air bubbles, which make ice less dense and more likely to melt faster. The ice machines made by Clinebell Equipment Co. are revered for their ability to make absolutely clear ice, but given that they are expensive, huge and produce 300-pound blocks, they are hardly an option for the home bartender.

More accessible are gadgets such as the Neat Ice Kit and Wintersmiths’ The Ice Baller. The internet is also replete with DIY tricks purported to do the same thing, including using warm water.

Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s “The Bar Book” (Chronicle Books, 2014) dismisses most of them out-of-hand, recommending home bartenders focus more on the second factor in cloudy ice: the water itself.

Don’t just freeze water

Minerals and other impurities also affect ice’s texture, and they can add unwanted flavors to the glass. In other words, make ice only with water you like.

“Some of that ice is going to melt, and the water will be mixed with the other ingredients in your drink,” writes Morgenthaler, who recommends using distilled water. “You need ice that tastes only like pristine water, not like pipes or a freezer.”

Another option: rethink ice entirely. Frozen cubes of coffee, fruit juice, infused waters or other liquids add both water and flavor as they melt. If you’re making a drink that needs the cold but not the water, like sangria, consider freezing grapes or other fruit and adding them before serving.

Or freeze the entire drink, suggested Jerry Nevins, co-owner of Snow & Co., which serves frozen cocktails at locations in the Crossroads (slated to relocate to Westport in October) and Gladstone, as well as a cart at Children’s Mercy Park where Sporting KC plays.

Snow & Co. uses specialized equipment, but all you need to replicate the experience is quality ingredients and a large zip-top bag. Seal and freeze, then defrost slightly and serve. Almost any recipe can be adapted, Nevins said.

“It’s as simple as having something get cold enough and having ingredients in right ratios,” he said. “Then almost anything can turn out to be a great frozen drink.”

The key is just that, though: the right ratios. Cold numbs our ability to taste sweetness, but over-compensating results in an overly sweet drink once it begins warming. Temperature changes also change the intensity of other flavors and can mute aromatics.

Nevins has tinkered with all manner of cocktails, ranging from the Negroni to a Manhattan riff called the Rockefeller and the Benny & De June, which includes gin, L’Esprit De June (made from blossoms from Ugni-blanc, Merlot and other wine grape vines), bitters and lemon juice. A book featuring 100 of his favorites is due out in 2017.

“Once you learn how to do it, it’s not as hard as people imagine,” Nevins said.

The Cocktail Deconstructed

This is the sixth in a seven-part series on the making of a cocktail. Follow along as we break it down — spirits, sugar, bitters, water, citrus and other essentials — to arrive at the modern classic.

Ice tips

▪ Make fresh ice regularly and store ice in a sealed container to prevent it from absorbing freezer flavors.

▪ Use distilled or filtered water for better-tasting ice.

▪ Use a silicone mold to make all-purpose one-inch cubes for shaking and stirring.

▪ After mixing, strain cocktails over fresh ice in the glass.

▪ Serve spirituous cocktails over a slower-melting large cube or sphere (a variety of mold options are available at area retailers and online).

▪ Try making cubes with coffee or juice, or adapting your favorite recipe as a freezer drink.

Old Square

Rye makes this cocktail in batches and ages it for at least six weeks in used whiskey barrels from Union Horse Distilling Co., but it’s just as tasty made in a single-serving size.

Makes 1 drink

1 ounce Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey

1 ounce Landy VS Cognac

1 ounce Dolin Vermouth Rouge

3/4 ounce Benedictine

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

Orange peel, flamed, for garnish

Combine rye, cognac, vermouth, Benedictine and bitters in a shaker tin. Fill with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a 6-ounce carafe. Place a large cube of ice in a highball glass, pour cocktail over the ice. Garnish with a flamed orange peel.

Per drink: 249 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 9 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Benny & De June

Integrate ice directly into this cocktail from Snow & Co. Owner Jerry Nevins recommends serving it in a double-walled glass to slow its melting.

Makes two 12-ounce drinks

5 3/4 ounces water

6 ounces simple syrup

6 ounces fresh lemon juice

3 ounces gin (Nevins recommends Koval Dry Gin)

3 ounces L’Esprit De June

3-4 dashes Angostura bitters

Lemon slices, for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a container that holds at least 32 ounces. Transfer mixture to a zip-top freezer bag, seal and place in freezer. After it freezes, remove the bag and run under hot water and squeeze it with your hands until the contents are a slushy consistency. Pour into glasses, garnish with lemon slices and serve.

Per drink: 330 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 33 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 4 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Frozoni

This summertime version of the Negroni includes water, which Jerry Nevins, owner of Snow & Co., says gives it a smoother texture.

Makes 2 12-ounce servings

6 1/4 ounces water

1 ounce simple syrup

1 ounce fresh lemon juice

9 1/2 ounces fresh orange juice

2 ounces sweet vermouth (Nevins recommends Cinzano)

2 ounces gin (Nevins recommends Pinckney Bend)

2 ounces Campari

Orange slices, for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a container that holds at least 32 ounces. Transfer mixture to a zip-top freezer bag, seal and place in freezer. After it freezes, remove the bag and run under hot water and squeeze it with your hands until the contents are a slushy consistency. Pour into glasses, garnish with orange slices and serve.

Per serving: 268 calories (2 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 23 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 5 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

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