Oversize cubes, spheres, sticks, flakes and pebbles: It’s not just frozen water anymore—artisanal ice is a full-fledged cocktail ingredient
The artisanal iceman cometh, and he’s not at all cold. With a short reddish beard, bright blue eyes and a friendly face, Dex James is downright warm, as he performs what looks like a magic trick. In the Dang Good Ice storefront in the Fraserhood, he pours water on a mammoth, crystal-clear, square-sided stick of ice in a highball glass and…it disappears.
Artisan ice can be the nearly invisible ingredient that helps deliver cocktail perfection—including king cubes so beautifully clear, one of the tenders behind the Fairmont Pacific Rim lobby bar tells me that imbibers of its white Lucky Negroni frequently ask, “Where’s the ice?” Juleps with flakes or pebbles from a Scotsman ice machine, rocks drinks over chunky Kold Draft cubes or cocktails crowned with a flawless diamond or sphere are just a few of the signs of the new ice age in B.C. bars.
James explains that immaculate technique and timing produce ice that stays very cold and melts very slowly, keeping your $18 cocktail correctly chilled “for the entire duration.” Lesser ice can quash a drink’s more delicate floral, herbal and citrus notes, he adds.
Though making ice sounds as simple as freezing water, it isn’t—not if you want to avoid bubbles, cloudiness or cracks. James’s commercial ice shop in Langley is full of equipment, including a Clinebell machine that produces 300-pound slabs of ice, as well as chainsaws and band saws for cutting. Even though it costs bartenders a couple bucks a cube to buy ice from him, they “can’t afford not to,” he says. Not only is cool ice a sustainable “garnish,” it can make a drink a social-media star, and “in these days of tagging everything, guests expect it, and it’s becoming a standard.”
Labour-intensive ice creations can become signature drinks, like the Inception Negroni at Prohibition at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia (a classic Negroni inside an ice sphere floating in a white Negroni) or H Tasting Lounge’s House of Fabergé (a cocktail that changes colour when its frozen sphere cracks).
At The Westin Bayshore’s H Tasting Lounge, manager David Vo’s team also hand-shapes the iceberg that floats in an Alaska #2. “The actual art and spectacle of carving the ice elevates the experience (for guests),” says Vo. Arty flourishes, such as copper-stamping the lounge’s logo into cubes, are in keeping with the Art Deco era of aviator Howard Hughes, onetime Bayshore resident and inspiration behind the lounge’s exploration-themed cocktails. Vo is also inspired by Frederic Tudor, known as New England’s “Ice King” in the early 19th century, who harvested natural ice blocks in winter for year-round use, creating a cocktail staple.
But modern ice machines break down, massive blocks and saws can be dangerous, and if a bar runs out? Well, a Clinebell block takes three days to freeze.
Enter Cameron Bogue, the corporate beverage director for Earls and an artisanal ice pioneer. “I’ve been a bartender for 20 years,” says the onetime bar star at Daniel Boulud’s Lumiere in Vancouver. “I’ve always been geeked out about ice.” He’s developed a small, wheeled stainless-steel dream machine that in just 24 hours can make food-safe bar ice in four blocks that are 13 inches square, five inches high, and a heftable 25 pounds.
“We improved both the usability and the speed,” says Bogue, as he uses a toothy arm-length knife, a sword-like carver, a mallet and a chisel to cleave and slice one of his crystalline blocks into glittering cubes. The key, he says, is letting the block temper for at least 40 minutes: “Like chocolate, it makes it easier to work with. Then it carves like butter.” Earls’ Ambleside location in West Vancouver has one of the bespoke ice-making machines, and an ice-prep station behind the bar for cutting specialty ice.
We live in a place that’s iconic for clean, fresh water. It only makes sense we should have the best ice.
Exactly why is having the perfect type of ice such an enhancement to enjoying a cocktail? Devon Dooling, the proprietor of ice company On the Rocks, ascribes it to “mindful drinking,” a trend she describes as knowing exactly what’s in your drink and taking the time to savour it. She’s provided her clients with everything from cubes custom-frozen with fruit or flowers inside to ice shot glasses for the wow factor at special events or parties.
Or maybe, as iceman Dex James says, artistic ice is a trend made for B.C. “We live in a place that’s iconic for clean, fresh water. It only makes sense we should have the best ice.”
ICE ADVICE: To make a clear king cube at home, start by buying a small cooler that fits inside your freezer. Fill cooler to top with water and place in the freezer for 24 to 30 hours (depending on freezer temperature), until the water is frozen. Remove ice block from cooler; the top 1 to 1.5 inches will be a clear ice sheet. Carve sheet into desired shapes and sizes.
Or visit alcademics.com for more information on the directional-freezing method for getting clear ice at home.
—by Charlene Rooke