Lessons From Tales of the Cocktail Vancouver: Ice

Cold took center stage at the BC cocktail conference.

March 16, 2011

Jon Santer’s block of ice.

Ice—a subject I’ve written about before —was something of a theme at Tales Vancouver this year. At least half of Dave Arnold’s seminar was devoted to the subject.

The should-be-obvious-but-often-isn’t takeaway from that lesson: Don’t ever let anyone tell you that a certain shape/type of ice is colder than another, all bar ice is 0 degrees Celsius. An ice cube that melts slower is chilling less. I could try to summarize all the fascinating stuff Arnold explained about dilution in cocktails, but he does it himself so well: Read all about that here.

Later in the day, Charlotte Voisey (unfairly pretty and has an English accent) and Jon Santer led a second ice seminar. Voisey gave an engaging lecture detailing the history of commercial ice, and then Santer destroyed a big-ass block of it with a chainsaw.

But wait, you may be thinking, who cares?

Good question, and one I think that Santer addressed well when he recalled how he came to care about ice. He told us that back when he was a bartender in San Francisco, he and his colleagues wrung their hands over the fact that the drinks tasted better at craft cocktail bars in New York than they did on this coast. Why would that be, Santer remembered thinking, when the west coast has better spirits and much better produce than back east? He went on a reconnaissance trip to NYC’s top spots and there he discovered the answer. It came down to the care and attention they were putting in to their ice programs.

If you want good bar ice, it generally has to come to you by way of:

1. A Kold-Draft machine, an expensive device with an inverted evaporator system that produces cubes under pressure, locking out air and impurities.

2. A big-old block of commercial ice—purified, air removed, and agitated during the freezing process—delivered to a bar/restaurant and then broken down by way of a bartender with a chainsaw. (The ’tenders at Rob Roy and Mistralkitchen do that.)

Now that we’ve established the importance of good ice, the question is: How can you make the best possible ice at home, assuming you don’t have the space/time/funds to invest in a $200 block of it and break it down yourself? Firstly, if you’re going to serve cocktails, you want the freshest ice possible. Freeze it that day, if possible, in clean trays. Use filtered water. Boil it first. If you can freeze in a freezer that’s only used for ice, all the better. Santer suggested investing in a silicone tray. And if you want to freeze a big block and then chip the ice yourself into spheres or whatever, you might invest in a hotel pan. But that’s a whole other ball of…ice.

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