While fresh ingredients and elegant glassware make a cocktail shine, one crucial element is often overlooked: ice. There are a few hurdles to overcome when preparing ice for cocktails, but it is the key to a stunning final product. I’ll talk about why it’s important, but first a quick story.

A few years back, I interviewed at a brand-new restaurant co-owned by a master sommelier. Master somms aren’t easy to come by, in fact there are fewer than 200 in the United States and fewer than 300 in the world. During the interview, after rounds of questions pertaining to the job, the master somm asked me about ice. For the last half of the interview I talked at length about things like directional freezing, pebble vs. flake ice and presentation vs. shaking ice. I didn’t get the gig.

Studies have demonstrated the science behind the perception of flavor. “You Eat with Your Eyes First”—an article by scientist Jeannine F. Delwiche, which ran in the peer-reviewed journal Physiology & Behavior—found that simple changes to the color of a food product distort one’s expectations, and ultimately the overall flavor. Other visual stimuli, such as the plating of a dessert, or in our case, the final presentation of a cocktail, can dazzle the eye and persuade the palate. If it looks delicious, it just might taste delicious. So why would I talk to a master somm for 20 minutes about ice? For the very reason that I offer cocktails with four distinct forms of ice at my bar: it makes for a better product.

Clear ice is not new, in fact it occurs in nature all the time. A quick online search yields methods on how to create beautiful ice at home. Some recommend boiling the water, while some say distilled water is the key. Although both might help, the real process has to do with time and insulation. Think of icicles that form on a tree branch in winter—time—or a pond that freezes over—insulation. Directional freezing insulates the sides and bottom of a container, which forces water to freeze from the top down and over a longer period of time. Impurities in the water will be pushed down as glorious clear ice forms on top.

Cocktail bars have used shaped, ultra-clear ice for years now, serving Instagram-worthy cocktails on a nightly basis. Ice spheres, large-format cubes, spears for collins glasses—one may find everything from custom logo stamps to flowers suspended in ice. The South Bay hasn’t had a reliable purveyor of cocktail ice until recently, so many opt to produce it themselves. Bars like Haberdasher, Orchard City Kitchen and 55 South have all been known to cut their own presentation ice.

Brian Han, a seven-year veteran of 55 South, has lots of experience with ice. Han is currently behind the bar at Protégé in Palo Alto—ironically the very establishment that turned me away a few years ago. At 55 South, the need for large-format ice started early, and Han was a big part of the project. The bar went from freezing molds and using ice-sphere presses to eventually cutting down 300-pound blocks by hand for their old fashioneds. At Protégé, Han uses some products made for the home enthusiast—such as the Wintersmiths Ice Chest.

“We use molds that give us clear ice,” Han says. “It automates what I used to do with a cooler.”

Using these tools in smaller bars offers customers an elevated product with just a little bit of effort.

For those without the time or space to make clear ice, the very appropriately named Clear Ice Company has you covered. Since August of 2018, owner Kyle Stewart-Frantz has been specifically dedicated to the production of cocktail ice. With more than 30 accounts in Silicon Valley, Clear Ice Company supplies cocktail ice in a variety of forms. I personally use their 2.1” cube for many drinks at my bar.

“A bartender can spend their time focusing on recipes and garnishes,” Stewart-Frantz says of his product. “They’re bartenders, not ice carvers.”

Clear Ice Company also offers their ice to the public with all their varieties available in easy-to-take home packaging.

Setting aside the rhetoric that it melts slower, is the sign of a better bar or takes magic to make, ice truly is the icing on the cake when presenting a cocktail. Just don’t expect to impress a master sommelier with your knowledge of the stuff.

Syrus Fotovat is the Bar Manager at Braise in Willow Glen.

The Clear Ice Company
460 Lincoln Ave, Suite 70, San Jose