In 2012, if you’d seen Scott Beattie brandishing a chainsaw outside Napa’s Goose & Gander, you might have wondered if the barkeeper had lost his mind. But in his quest to serve clear ice in rocks cocktails at the bar, Beattie had acquired huge slabs of sculpture ice, which he then cut down to blocks with a chainsaw. Very carefully. Then, bartenders would hand chop these into double-rocks size for each drink behind the bar. The company he bought the ice from has adapted to bars’ demands over the past decade and now delivers its ice in more manageable three-inch blocks. “Which is great, you know, because we had a very safe way of chainsawing the ice down, but it’s still a chainsaw,” Beattie says.
Block ice like this is frozen completely clear through directional freezing, usually using one of a few commercially available machines purpose-designed, at that time, to supply ice for sculptures. But bartenders serving carefully constructed cocktails with hand-cut ice in neo-speakeasies began adopting clear ice both for its aesthetic qualities, but also because the cloudiness found in conventional ice from air bubbles causes it to melt faster. So beyond being photo ready, denser clear ice has a much slower dilution rate. Beattie says he saw block ice being used in Tokyo bars and this might have put the idea in his head.
Rich Boccato, cofounder of Queens’ Dutch Kills with Sasha Petraske, also credits Japanese bars’ influence on New York at that time and says “handcut ice was a part of our daily repertoire and our side work behind the bar” when he worked at Milk & Honey, but that ice wasn’t crystal clear since they were freezing it themselves. When they opened Dutch Kills in 2009, he says, “I wanted to go a step further, and I wanted that ice to be crystal clear, like they do in Tokyo in many of the popular bars there, which is essentially a common standard.” Boccato went all the way and bought a ClineBell CB300X2D, a machine designed for ice sculptors that makes 300-lb blocks of ice, for the new bar.
That’s a lot of ice. The machine could produce much more ice than Dutch Kills, a busy bar even by New York standards, could use. From there Boccato founded Hundredweight Ice in 2011 and began delivering ice to bars all over New York City.
Clear ice began to spread like wildfire.
“The business model was figured out and then everyone could replicate that pretty easily,” says Camper English, author of the forthcoming The Ice Book: Cool Cubes, Clear Spheres, and Other Chill Cocktail Crafts. “It was really wordspread among the bartenders. And a lot of people who were opening bars ended up opening ice companies,” after Dutch Kills cracked it. And once one bar in a city— L.A. or Rochester, New York or Phoenix or Charleston or Petaluma, California— bought a ClineBell or similar machine and a band saw, other craft cocktail bars in that city had a reliable source of clear ice.
Maybe you can call it the Instagramming of ice, even though ice chopping would have been an essential barkeeper’s skill before commercial refrigeration when bars were in ice houses by necessity and the blocks had to be chiseled down by hand. But today’s modern ice age—which now includes patterns on the outside of ice or flowers frozen inside, as Colleen Hughes at Haberdish in Charlotte, North Carolina popularized—seems to have been fueled by drinkers’ expectations after scrolling their smartphones.
Image may not be everything, as clear ice also has clear quality advantages, but “when that glass goes over the bar and you see that beautiful, crystal-clear cube, and it’s a big rock inside of your old fashioned, even before you taste it,” says Boccato, “your old fashioned might be completely imbalanced and not potable, but it’s going to look beautiful and you’re going to want it.”
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Last Updated: June 12, 2023