Joe Raya, the co-owner and chief bartender at the Gin Joint, has stocked his establishment with a full-on arsenal of serious ice-making gear. There's the Japanese aluminum-alloy ice sphere mold, and the persnickety Kold-Draft machine that makes perfectly square 1½ inch cubes and crushes them to smithereens with the flip of a switch. But the Clinebell CB300x2 takes it to an entirely different plane.
Created to freeze water for ice sculptures, the Clinebell creates flawless, crystal-clear, 300-pound blocks of ice, which Raya and his team lift from the machine with an engine hoist. They go to work on it with chainsaws, Japanese handsaws, and finally ice picks to carve it down into just the right sizes they need for cocktails.
"We're kind of really particular about our ice," Raya admits.
Does it really make all that much of a difference? Serious boozehounds will tell you that it does. Cocktail writer Wayne Curtis has observed that "ice is as important to a bartender as a stove is to a chef." Just as chefs need fine-tuned control over the heat they apply to foods, bartenders need precise ways to cool their drinks.
Unfortunately, America's bartenders have essentially been practicing their craft on crummy little hot plates for decades. Conventional ice machines produce large volumes of frozen water with automated ease, but it's an inferior end product: hollow, quick-melting cubes or brittle air-filled crescents.
The Kold-Draft ice machine has emerged as the gold standard, and only a couple of places in town can claim to possess one. "I was adamant about having it," says Jasmine Beck, the beverage director of the Cocktail Club. Now she couldn't imagine running the bar without it.
The Kold-Draft freezes its ice upside down, pumping water through a plate into a tray of inverted cells. As the water circulates across the cells, it forms ice on the cold surface, but air and impurities get flushed away, leaving cubes of perfectly pure ice with true squared sides. It's also equipped with a crusher that can pound the cubes into flat shards that — being made from dense, pure ice — melt much more slowly than regular flaked ice.
Beck uses the crushed ice in complex mixed cocktails like the Tropical Heat (read more about it here). "It really helps in cocktails with separation, to keep it balanced," she says. The mid-sized one-and-a-quarter inch cubes go into "normal" mixed drinks — your gin and tonics and what not. For rocks drinks, they use silicone ice trays to freeze 2-inch square cubes that are just large enough to fit snugly into a glass.
The bar team at Husk Restaurant is serious about their ice, too. In the spirit of the restaurant's ingredients- and purveyor-focused philosophy, they purchase block ice from the best local source they can find: Brian Connors of Ice Age, a Charleston-based ice sculpture company.
They use this dense, crystal clear ice to craft their infamous "sphere." The bartender starts with a big block of pure ice, about four inches on a side, and places it between the two hemispheres of a special ice ball press. There's no electricity or heat involved, just gravity and conduction. Though copper-colored, the press is actually made of an aluminum alloy that's highly conductive. The ice immediately begins melting into the spherical cavity, the heavy top slowly sinks down as the ice melts away, and in about a minute the bartender removes a perfectly round sphere of ice.
Typically reserved for a glass of prized Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, the sphere looks really cool, but it's functional as well, providing the maximum ice volume with the least surface area, meaning you get the most cooling power with minimal dilution from melted ice, which is key for a fine sipping whiskey like a Van Winkle.
For other rocks drinks, Husk's bartenders use three-inch chunks that fill most of the glass. These drinks include the Barrel-Aged Manhattan ($16), a blend of bourbon, rye, and bitters that steeps in new American oak barrels for 30 days, and the Charleston Light Dragoon's Punch ($8), a historic recipe in which black tea and lemon juice conceal the potent kick of brandy, rum, and peach brandy. With bold, complex concoctions like these, you don't want to dilute the flavors, and that big chunk of ice ensures the drink never becomes lukewarm or watery.
There are, of course, other ways to cool a beverage, and cool it quickly, too. If ice is the bartender's stove, then over at Grill 225 they're using the deep fryer: liquid nitrogen. The super-cold substance is used to flash-chill "Nitrotinis." It's something of a thrill ride, admittedly, and the menu bears a stern disclaimer that one should give liquid nitrogen "the same respect as fire."
You choose from a list of almost 30 martini combinations, which run the gamut from the classic with Tanqueray and dry vermouth ($17) to the exotic, like the Market Pavilion Passion ($17) with mango rum, muddled bananas, candied ginger, and plum bitters. The bartender mixes the ingredients, strains them into a martini glass, and finally applies the kicker: a spoonful of liquid nitrogen at minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit.
The glass immediately begins to emit a roiling cloud of white mist. The water vapor condenses into liquid as it touches the super-cold nitrogen. The martini is placed in front of you, looking every bit like a steaming witch's kettle, and you're warned to let it stand for a minute or two while the liquid nitrogen evaporates. Once the steaming stops, you can hazard a sip without frost-burning your tongue.
The verdict? The classic tastes every bit like a traditional martini, and it is crisply cold. But after the liquid nitrogen evaporates away, it leaves behind bits of ice as well as traces of an odd frozen slush. Our bartender explained that the nitro freezes the alcohol right along with the water, which I guess accounts for the slush but doesn't necessarily make it any more enjoyable. Still, it's one hell of a dramatic presentation.
Ultimately, nitro chilling is a parlor trick. The proper use of ice involves more than just temperature. There's conductivity, dilution, and concepts like "state change energy" that I might have paid more attention to back in high school physics if I had known they were going to turn out to be so useful later in life.
Need proof? Just leave it to the ice fanatics down at the Gin Joint. Their protocol includes always shaking a cocktail with different ice than it's served with. The way it's strained matters, too. "We make sure we are not just straining it through a traditional Hawthorne strainer," Raya says, referring to the ubiquitous coiled wire tool. "But also a tea strainer. If you don't double strain it, you get slushy ice that floats to the top and just sits there."
If unstrained, that slushy ice can melt by the time a cocktail makes its way to a guest's table, meaning that the very first sip would be watery and insipid.
"From beginning to end, we try to use ice in the right way," Raya says, and, as he explains the physics, it starts to make sense.
Consider the effect of crushed ice in a drink, for instance. Raya points to the mint julep as the perfect case study. A mint julep has essentially the same formula as an Old Fashioned, Raya explains (and he's referring to an old-fashioned Old Fashioned without any muddled fruit in it). It's not the steeping of mint that sets the julep apart but the ice.
The Old Fashioned is served over a single lump of ice, while the julep comes in a cup completely filled with crushed ice. Crushed ice is the exact opposite of the sphere, bringing maximum surface area into use. There is simply no way of getting a drink colder than using properly dry crushed ice. Sufficient crushed ice can make a drink so cold that the outside of the vessel has a sheet of frost on it.
"The julep gets so much colder than the Old Fashioned," Raya explains. "It will be in the neighborhood of 22 to 25 degrees when it gets to the guest. The Old Fashioned will be 35 to 37, and it's a completely different drink due to the temperature. Those drinks are separated by what ice you use."
Of course, crushed ice melts more quickly, which is why it is used in cocktails like the julep or tiki drinks that have a much higher alcohol content and that actually improve with a little dilution.
Raya admits that being so fanatical about ice isn't easy. Not only is there a substantial upfront investment in purchasing the high-end equipment, but machines like the Kold-Draft and the Clinebell are notoriously temperamental and require constant cleaning and fine tuning.
Is it worth it? The proof is in the cocktail. From first sip to last, there's a remarkable difference in flavor — sometimes bolder, sometimes colder — between cocktails served over proper ice and those glugged into a glass over conventional frozen water.
Pay attention to the ice. It can make all the difference.