I've been wondering for a while about what the next step in the ever-evolving cocktail culture in the Bay Area possibly could be. Where can connoisseurs go after treating the superiority of Boston shakers, Hawthorn strainers and hand-pressed citrus squeezers?
Ice cubes. (Obligatory eye roll here.)
"Ice is certainly the most overlooked ingredient in cocktails," advised The Atlantic correspondent Wayne Curtis, who devoted an entire page in the June issue to the unsung hero of hooch. "Ice," he continued, "has typically been an afterthought — invisible, tasteless, essentially free."
A Google search combining those two magic words — ice and cocktails — yielded 4.9 million results. (Angelina Jolie and Middle East peace process yielded more. Rome has not yet fallen.) Even Bon Appétit weighed on the virtue or error of distilled water (versus triple-filtered H2O), aluminum trays and "proper dilution." CHOW.com included a video on how to crush ice.
I always thought that the most important thing about ice was that it was cold.
"What do you make your ice out of?" I asked the bartender at Fox at the Den. "Water," he replied. "What kind of water?" I asked. To his credit, he did not say "wet." Instead he told me they use "city water." Barkeepers at other places looked at me like I had just asked what kind of oxygen they favored.
For "beautiful ice" in Oakland you have to go to Flora, which is where I went. Naturally, two ice connoisseurs pulled up a stool next to mine the night I was there to quiz the restaurant's mixologists. Connoisseur No. 1 said he collects shaved ice machines. Connoisseur No. 2 said his dream is to own a Kold Draft ice machine, which is what Flora uses. "See this ice? Look at how beautiful it is," the man said, pointing to two big dense squares of ice that were nearly as clear as water. They hold less air within the ice cube so they dissolve slower, he explained. The larger the ice cube the slower it melts once it is combined with liquor, he added. "You don't want the ice to melt. You want to make the drink cold. The water dilutes the cocktail."
Different cocktails get different ice, Flora bartender Troy Bayless explained to me. He used crushed ice for a Queen's Park Swizzle cocktail that looked like a snow cone in a glass except the rum was for big girls like me. Early cocktails weren't built around ice the way they are now, Bayless said, pulling out one of his trusty bartender books, "Imbibe." He has others. People originally just kind of looked at frozen water as frozen water, until "Ice King" Frederic Tudor bet his fortune on slippery slabs of H2O. He traveled the world in the early 1800s to persuade barkeepers and entire countries to offer chilled drinks, according to the book of ice history, "Frank the cows are out."
The Ice King made it possible for breweries to operate year-round. His icy monopoly remained unchallenged for decades. "The coast is now cleared of interlopers," he once declared, according to a 2002 Smithsonian Magazine article. "If there are any unslain enemies, let them come out." But he was dealing in blocks of ice cut from frozen water. Before the first ice machines in the mid-1800s (which got a chilly reception from Tudor), bartenders used to chisel away at a big block of ice to put in the drinks. Fast forward to these days when the ice industry is worth billions but the quality of much of it is at the level geared toward lining a beer cooler.
We've come full circle.
Ice got hot about three to five years ago, Bayless said. The place making "amazing ice" right now is Heaven's Dog in San Francisco, he added. The difference kicks in once the frozen stuff is removed from its icy lair, according to Imbibe magazine. "Good ice is a must for every home bar, but it doesn't need to be expensive or complicated," counseled a section in the spirit-ual magazine dedicated to building a home bar. A silicon tray will do the trick, i.e. "make perfect cubes." For cracked ice, the author advises putting those cubes into a hand towel to be broken up with a mallet or muddler. Same goes for crushed ice ("essential for many cocktails").
But, please, whether it's a swizzle, a martini or scotch on the rocks, water freezes at 32 degrees. In fact, inquiries often begin with "I know this is sort of ridiculous, but what kind of ice "... " I feel like Marlow in "Heart of Darkness." Like the literary character in Joseph Conrad's novel, my lessons in ice took me to a place I never wanted to go — over the edge into mixology madness — where Keisuke Goto, 2008 Greatest T.G.I. Friday's Bartender in the World, would reign like Kurtz in the novel.
My only question is where do we go from here?
Reach Angela Woodall at 510-208-6413 or firstname.lastname@example.org.