The world of artisanal ice
Michael Madrusan completely destroyed the first block of ice he pulled from a Clinebell machine. He’d shipped the Cadillac of ice makers to Melbourne from the US and waited three days for it to spit out a 150 kilogram block of dense, crystal clear ice … only for the block to break when he poured room temperature water on it.
“It cracked like thunder,” says Madrusan. “I don’t know what I was thinking.” It had been more than a decade since the Made in the Shade group co-founder was exposed to artisanal ice. While bartending at Milk & Honey in the early aughts, the team at the late Sasha Petraske’s New York City institution were freezing and cutting 70 quart pans of ice a day using a two-inch chisel, mallet and bare hands. It took two hours and, in the depths of a New York winter, it was “a f**king sh*t job”.
Madrusan arrived in New York in 2003, just as the global cocktail renaissance was taking off. While bartenders were impressed by the finesse clear ice brought to their drinks, Madrusan suspects not many understood the true value of ‘iceberg’ blocks beyond aesthetics.
Classic cocktails are naught but four things; spirits, sugar, bitters and water. With just a handful of components in each glass, there’s no room for error and that means every element needs to be considered, including ice. Water’s role is to dilute and it does so best in frozen form.
When it comes to a cocktail’s integrity, “over-dilution is one of the biggest killers,” says Madrusan. Store-bought machine-cut ice will add a lot of dilution all at once, whether used during mixing or served in the glass. The bigger the block, the denser the ice, the more control.
“Along with bringing the drink down to temp, [ice] has a really important role to play in dilution,” says Madrusan. “So, what’s the role of ice? It chills and adds dilution. Why is bigger better? Because it actually maintains the temperature of the drink without over diluting; you maintain the integrity of the cocktail for much longer.”
The other big question, according to Madrusan, is why clear ice is better than cloudy. Again, there’s more to it than looks. “Cloudy ice contains gas, minerals and all these impurities — it’s quite weak,” he explains. Any impurities will devalue the structure of the ice itself, leading it to start melting faster and tainting the cocktail as it does.
Madrusan’s knowledge on the topic is vast, which makes sense given Navy Strength Ice Company is part of his Made in the Shade portfolio which also includes venues such as The Everleigh and Bar Margaux.
Four ex-bartenders work seven days a week with eight Clinebell machines to produce clear blocks that are thrice-frozen. The ice gets harder the more it sweats and freezes, making for a diamond-like end product in both clarity and hardness.
The durability of ‘hand cut’ high-quality ice also gives bartenders time to breathe in the heat of service, offering flexibility when making rounds or working with customers.
“If you pour a Negroni over machine ice, the drink has to get to the customer straight away,” says Madrusan. Artisanal ice, on the other hand, can sit in the drink for longer. “But we always say get it out of the shaker straight away and onto a fresh piece of ice.”
While crushed ice is always on hand — there are plenty of drinks that call for it, after all — The Everleigh team only shakes with block ice. “It gives us the most amount of control over the cooling and dilution,” says Madrusan. “Same for stirring.”
Ice is temperamental in nature, but its nature can be moulded with the right knowledge. “It’s really important to sweat the ice before you add it to liquid,” says Madrusan.
The difference between fresh ice straight from the freezer and room temperature liquid will lead to one result — a cracked block. “We like to warm [the blocks] up by rolling them around before we shake,” he says.
Of course, it all comes at a cost. A block of hand-cut ice from a Clinebell machine will set a bar back around 85 cents, with some suppliers charging up to a dollar per block. Even if he’s a little biased, for Madrusan, the choice to invest is a no-brainer. “People need to see ice as an ingredient,” he says. “It’s imperative for any cocktail … they start to die as soon as you make them.
With the attention given to food and drinks now, any bar that’s not prioritising quality in drinks is really missing the mark.” In the end, the issue is clear cut for Madrusan: “It really is the most interesting ingredient in a drink to me.”