The most overlooked ingredient in your craft cocktail is also the coolest

·9 min read

A paper plane cocktail is generally strained into a coupe glass after being shaken with ice, a process that intentionally dilutes the drink. Some recipes stress moderation in agitation, but the one Samir Patel poured for me at Lil’ Indies was different, a boozy variation, Negroni-like, aromatic with orange scents both sweet and bitter. Vibrant aperol amped it, imbuing both flavor and color.

One large cube, an elegant, glass-clear iceberg, was central in the glass, chilling the bourbon with precision-paced dilution, elevating the citrus peel to my eye and nose, imparting sexiness to the glass via heft and even the subtle musicality of its clink.

Down the street at Tori Tori, the ice comes from the Ice Doctor, a Gainesville specialist who makes drops to the tune of $1,000 a week, delivering 1,600 cubes for the trendy izakaya’s single-spirit pours and bubbly Japanese highballs. The company’s owner, Andrew Amron cuts them from a 300-lb. block in a climate-controlled walk-in. This, after 48 hours of curing on a stainless steel table where the ice – 10 below at birth – slowly warms to a balmy 26 degrees.

The one in my drink at Indie’s was born in a box near the pool table at Will’s Bar. Its postnatal curing consisted of a couple hours’ out back in the heat. Then Will Walker cut it with a chainsaw.

For all the dramatic dichotomy, the process begins the same way, in a Clinebell – so unique it is named for the Colorado family that makes them. They’ve been in the ice biz since 1955. The block-ice machines use a process known as directional freezing.

It’s all fantastically nerdy.

“In every glass of water, there are gases dissolved,” explains Amron, a former bartender who started the business five and a half years ago. “You can’t see them, the molecules are too small, but when it freezes, the crystal structure locks them in place.”

Hence, the cloudy nature of your home attempts at craft-cocktail cubes.

“If you can keep the water moving constantly, the gases are never stationary long enough to get trapped,” he explains.

The Clinebell gently circulates the water within, which freezes from the bottom up. The gases – oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide – rise with the remaining liquid.

“At the end of four days, a 40-gallon tank has about a half-gallon of water left at the top. We get it out with a shop vac,” says Amron.

Beneath, perfectly transparent ice awaits transformation into flawless cubes or longer “picks” which go into Collins glasses. Each goes for 60 cents. Spheres, which require more work, cost $1 apiece.

The Ice Doctor’s cubes are more pristine than those you’ll find at Indie’s, their journey to Orlando well-suited for the posh pours in which they fulfill their destiny. They arrive perfectly packaged, sans frost, for bartenders at Orlando’s Four Seasons, Kabooki Sushi and Seito, numerous venues at Disney Springs, the Basin in Sanford and more.

“Ice is the most commonly overlooked ingredient in any drink,” says Arthur Boothe, pro mixologist and owner of the Suffering Bastard, a tiny, reservations-only tiki universe tucked inside Tuffy’s Bottle Shop in Sanford, “yet it’s one of the first things people notice when they get their beverages.”

Will Walker, owner of Will’s, Lil’ Indies and the tiki-inspired Dirty Laundry (“We’re ’70s motel tiki, not the Bastard,” he clarifies with a chuckle.) has been freezing, curing and cutting the ice at Indie’s for about seven years.

“We wanted to elevate our cocktail program,” he says. “If you want to have one to any degree, you have to have some sort of ice program to go with it. Otherwise, once you reach a certain threshold, your drinks won’t match up to what you’re serving them with. It would be like having only one type of glass.”

It’s pretty, he says, but the ice’s importance goes far beyond aesthetics.

“We have $80 pours of whiskey,” says Walker. “You can’t dump that over well ice.”

Master sommelier George Miliotes would definitely agree. At his place – Disney Springs’ Wine Bar George, which in 2019 won the distinction of Best Micro Wine List in the World by The World of Fine Wine – spirits may not get top billing in the name, but they’re hardly on the back burner.

“We always wanted to have an inventive and strong cocktail program,” he explains, noting that early on, the team considered running its own ice program. But after examining the requirements, and finding the Ice Doctor’s product “as perfect as ice can be,” left it to a professional.

“The old fashioned has become quite a thing. And we wanted ours to be as perfect as it could be as we serve a lot of them on a daily basis. That beautiful 2x2 cube is essential. Ice is part of the recipe just like any other element and the quality of the ice relates directly to the quality of the drink.”

It’s something customers see first.

“You pour a beautiful spirit that’s been aged in oak, has that caramel-brown color, and you can see it right through the ice. It’s part of the allure.... You use all your senses in enjoying that piece of ice and the guest who comes in and orders two ounces of Macallan 12-year knows exactly what the ice does. It enhances that experience.”

Back when Ricky Galicia was working at Sushi Pop Winter Park, he was looking for something special to enhance a special cocktail they’d be running during Valentine’s Week.

“The Galentine was created to be clear – a gin-based take on a white Negroni – so the ice cube could be the focal point, but also to impart a little flavor to the drink,” explains Galicia, who knew Amron from his days working at Odd Birds in St. Augustine, his uncle’s place. The Ice Doctor froze flower petals into the cube.

“The cube has to be perfect,” says Galicia, today the managing partner and co-owner of The Wildflower in Baldwin Park, and still an Ice Doctor client. “It’s time consuming and when you have a high-volume cocktail bar you have to pick your battles. You can build the price into the cocktail and have it look the way you want it to. It’s worth it to me to let someone else do it.”

Walker, who plays with a chainsaw on the reg, enjoys the DIY method.

“Honestly, though, I like the meat cleaver (with which he finalizes the saw cuts with therapeutic, hammer-like blows) even better.”

Both tools scratch that primitive itch, he admits, but Walker – who basically grew up in an auto body shop – has been comfortable with tools all his life. He’s already his own maintenance man. Doing the ice allows him a little space, a luxury that the boss – constantly interrupted by questions, issues, deliveries – doesn’t generally get.

“The chainsaw is loud,” he says. “No one bothers me when I’m cutting.”

Up at the Bastard, they use block-ice less, but when Boothe was running Bitters & Brass – which shuttered during the pandemic – he was the only one of the Ice Doctor’s customers who purchased blocks whole.

“We’d cut them into logs using a chainsaw, knife and mallet, then store them until they were cut to order for cocktails.”

It’s a practice Walker has seen in a few upscale parlors, one he says really showcases the incredible work so many venues put into their ice program, but so few customers are aware of.

Boothe agrees. At the intimate, 26-seat Suffering Bastard, it’s just as important.

“Our pebble ice is made in a Hoshizaki ice machine. We have molds we use for coconut water ice spheres. We use grog cones for grog ice, as well as an ice shaver to make snow ice for molding into ice shells.”

In a good bar, he says, all kinds should be employed. And though beautiful, its main purpose is and always should be function.

“Even in things that seem excessive, like the ice shells at the Bastard, they serve a purpose first,” he explains. “Here, that’s to contain aromas so as you sip the cocktail, [these aromas] are the first thing to introduce your palate to the flavors.”

Larger ice is used for drinks where slow dilution is desired – sippers. Smaller ice is for higher-proof drinks that are meant to be enjoyed more quickly; its high surface area – all those nooks and crannies and edges – melts quickly once immersed, making it ideal for a really strong drink (like the three-tiki-rated Skull and Bones at the Suffering Bastard, a wonder of fruits, spices and Gold and Overproof rums). Larger ice goes in a shaker for best dilution and proper aeration of the cocktail. Each form serves a function.

Ironically, the Ice Doctor rarely partakes of his own high-end wares.

“I’m the least snobby person when it comes to ice because most of what I like to drink doesn’t even have it,” he says, noting that an off-menu secret for pebble-ice fans is that you can buy a 10-lb bag of it at Sonic for $1.99. “But as a former bartender, I understand its importance.”

At Wine Bar George, says Miliotes, so do the customers.

“They expect it. They are thrilled when they see it. They comment on it. They love the idea of it. And that’s the ultimate. We can make a commitment to something and be passionate about it, but if the guest doesn’t care? It doesn’t matter.”

Part of the $15 old fashioned experience, he says, is that you have to have that piece of ice.

“If you’re going to pay that kind of money for something, there better be something special about it.”

Find me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram @amydroo or on the OSFoodie Instagram account @orlando.foodie. Email: amthompson@orlandosentinel.com. For more fun, join the Let’s Eat, Orlando Facebook group or follow @fun.things.orlando on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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