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On the Rocks (thinking about drinking)

Drinking with craft ice and real rocks

Those of us who don't have ready access to huge blocks of crystal-clear, artisanal ice — and whose chainsaw skills have become rusty — might be forgiven for feeling left out of the Ice Age that has overtaken the world of bars and booze. The professional bartender's must-have piece of equipment, the minimum ticket into the exclusive cocktalian club, is a Kold-Draft ice machine. According to its manufacturer, "KOLD-DRAFT make[s] pure, sparkling, square cubes; a unique look, but also a shape that allows us to claim harder, denser, and slower-melting ice."

But today's mas-macho mixologist is not content to stop with sparkling, square cubes, no matter how dense. No, he's more likely to want the option to calve off chunks of really big ice from sparkling slabs of the sort routinely used by ice sculptors. And as the contours of the ice are less perfect to start with, a single hewn cube becomes a kind of mini-sculpture in the glass over time. (It's probably also not inconsequential that big-ass ice takes up a lot of room that might otherwise be occupied by booze. Just saying.) Taking their custom-crafted cocktails very seriously, this is the kind of ice used at Bohanan's Bar, and a Negroni served with a single, hand-hewn cube is a thing of beauty.

"We're a high-volume bar and don't really have the time [for cutting our own ice]," says the Esquire Tavern's Jeret Peña. So ET uses super-size silicone molds to give them larger pieces for "any stirred cocktail that's meant to be served on the rocks." The Tavern also has a device that will sculpt a sphere out of a cube for use in single-malt scotches. The home bartender can go online to find molds, such as the ones from Tovolo, that will yield two-inch cubes, and Googling will yield more than one source for spherical ice molds. (The ones from prepara.com are especially attractive.) This shape, especially in a two-inch diameter, also looks cool in a rocks glass and has the added advantage of exposing less surface area to the warming influences of the surrounding liquid.

If you want to achieve at home the other desirable quality of restaurant ice, its clarity, a little Google action (look for "making clear ice") will bring up more hurled invectives involving physics than you ever wanted to read. We'll leave discussions of entropy to the truly geeked-out but do note that there's general consensus on one technique: start with filtered or distilled water, then boil it and let it come back to room temp twice to release gasses, dissolve minerals, etc. Voila! Slow-melting, clear cubes.

There are times when melting can be a good thing, however; up to a point, the increasing dilution of a drink can give the imbiber a sense of evolving character. This is especially to be taken advantage of when the cube itself can release flavor as did the horseradish-laced ice Jason Dady used for the Bloody Bull at his original restaurant in the Fairmount. "I wanted to have the heat change as the drink sat there," says Dady. (It gets hotter as the ice melts and releases more horseradish, in other words.) "Also, fire and ice is a neat effect."

But for a drink that can literally claim to be served "on the rocks," there are now non-reactive soapstone cubes or "pucks" that are stored in the freezer: no melting in the glass whatsoever. Ever. These stones are generally smaller than the cubes of the big-ice boosters, most of whom are likely to turn up their well-tuned noses at the very idea, and are meant to lower the temperature of a scotch or bourbon by a few degrees at most. They have their defenders and their (fierce) detractors. We say stick with ice and learn to love a little melting. •

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