‘The best thing you never taste’

Mixologists have a new obsession—serving the perfect ice. One bar offers eight types.
Joanne Latimer

‘The best thing you never taste’Cameron Bogue had one condition before accepting the bar manager job at Vancouver’s Lumière and DB Bistro Moderne restaurants. He wanted a Kold-Draft ice cube machine. No other brand would do. “Kold-Draft makes big, dense, perfectly square, 1¼-inch cubes that are frozen in layers under a horizontal evaporator,” explains Bogue. “The ice gives optimal cooling of the cocktail without quick dilution.” For special occasions and photo shoots, Bogue makes his ice by hand with distilled water (not mineral water) that he boils first, then freezes twice to remove any dissolved gasses. It is not a process for the impatient.

Bogue might be dismissed as a rogue perfectionist behind the bar if there weren’t others like him. “Mass-produced ice from a cheap machine is not the way to go,” concurs David Wolowidnyk, head mixologist at West restaurant in Vancouver. “We’re in the process of reconfiguring our bar so we can expand our ice program. The plan is to add a small freezer so we can custom-make round ice cubes the size of tennis balls. We have the spherical moulds and they’re ready to go!”

Michelle Hunt, co-owner of Toronto’s Martini Club, double-filters her water, then hand-shaves ice. For big events, she orders ice balls from Iceculture in Hensall, Ont., where they developed a technique for making 300 balls an hour. “We use 100 per cent pure water with a reverse-osmosis filtration system and ultraviolet light to kill any bacteria,” says Julian Bayley, the company’s co-founder. “Each ball costs about $1.15, on quantity orders, and is the size of a billiard ball.”

TV personality and mixologist Kevin Brauch orders 55- and 65-cm-diameter ice balls made with Evian water from an artisanal ice maker in Mississauga, Ont. The Evian ice balls provide “the right amount of surface contact with the beverage,” says Brauch, host of The Thirsty Traveler on the Food Network. “It increases the cost of the drink by about 75 cents or one dollar, but it’s worth it. Considering the attention we pay to craft beer, fresh juices and the wine list, it makes sense to pay attention to ice. Ice should be the best thing you never taste.”

In their quest for the perfect cube, mixologists are getting creative. Casey Bee, a co-owner at Sidecar in Toronto, makes a mean Negroni chilled with cubes frozen in a fishing tackle box. At Toronto’s Barchef, mixologists chip away at a 17-by-17-by-20-inch slab of ice that sits on the bar, lit from below. “It’s a piece of art, but it also gives us superior cooling in the glass,” says Brent VanderVeen, Barchef’s co-owner.

When the Drake Hotel in Toronto celebrated its fifth anniversary in February, a special ice program was created for the evening. “We triple-froze the ice and hand-chipped it,” says David Brown, the bar manager. “The triple freezing removed the oxygen and made crystal-clear ice. It was a big hit.” Over at Canoe in Toronto, mixologist Jeff Sansone swears by his Hoshizaki ice machine, the main competitor to Kold-Draft: “The cubes are the perfect size—big—for shaking martinis.” Sansone also freezes trays of custom juice cubes with embedded cranberries or rosemary. He’d love the time to make more.

“The size of the bar often dictates the ice program,” explains Kelly Gray, editor of Bar & Beverage magazine. “Big bars cannot custom-make all their ice. Bar owners would go apoplectic if their bartenders took the time to hand-make and chip their own ice each night for every drink.”

Some brands of liquor are fighting this notion, working to raise the profile of gourmet ice. “We work with bars to show them the difference in customer satisfaction between good ice and bad ice,” says Ruairi Twomey, Canadian marketing director for Baileys, who hired Hunt at the Martini Club to give a full-day seminar on ice in Toronto for the Baileys Shiver launch. “Ice transformed Baileys and we think quality ice is a key investment.”

But are most people discerning enough to even notice? Is it worth the effort? “It’s worth every ice chip in the eye and every frozen hand,” claims Toby Maloney, head mixologist at the Violet Hour, a Chicago bar with eight types of ice available, including induction ice created on the outside of a metal julep cup and “cheater ice” from a regular machine for chilling bottles. “Once people have had good ice, they know the difference,” he says. “Nobody accuses chefs of being too picky about their ingredients,” says Montreal’s leading mixologist Fabien Maillard, owner of the Lab Cocktail Counter. “You can never pay too much attention.”