In a hot downtown workshop Tuesday, a half-dozen bartenders gathered around a freshly delivered 300-pound block of perfectly clear ice, admiring its size and its clarity.
“It looks like it's made of glass,” said Phil Cacciatore, a bartender at The Grey Plume. “It looks like it's hollow in the middle.”
A few minutes later, Boiler Room bartender Colin Breen pulled out a chainsaw and shaved several inches off the top of the 40-inch-by-20-inch-by-10-inch block. He delivered the sheet of ice to Clark Ross, his Boiler Room colleague, who ran it through a table saw, transforming it into 2-inch-by-2-inch cubes, so clear and sharp they almost didn't look real.
Over the next hour and a half, Ross and Breen slowly broke the entire block into 2-inch cubes, 3-inch cubes (which fit perfectly in Old-Fashioned glasses), and ice spears — long, thin rectangles of ice used in drinks served in a Collins glass.
It was the first meeting of the Omaha Craft Bartenders Guild ice collective, with Ross as the unofficial leader. Member bars and restaurants will share the cost of the $110 blocks of ice, which Ross, Breen and eventually other bartenders will convert into cubes and spears to take back to their restaurants and bars.
Not every bar has freezer space for 300 pounds of ice, Ross explained, and not every bar has its own table saw.
But increasingly, in Omaha and elsewhere, places that serve craft cocktails also seek out good ice to complement the high-quality alcohol, fresh fruit juices, homemade syrups and other ingredients that make these cocktails special.
Large cubes, like the ones Ross and Breen cut, melt more slowly than smaller ones, thus diluting drinks more slowly. Impurities in water can affect the taste of the drink, so some bartenders do what they can to remove them — either by filtering and freezing water themselves or buying purified ice from a distributor. Ross' came from Muzzy Ice, which specializes in ice for sculptures, hence the clarity.
“If you're going to have dirty ice, you're going to have a dirty drink,” Ross said.
And ice so clear you can barely see it in the glass just looks cool.
“It's an important garnish,” said Phil Anania, a co-owner of the French Bulldog in Dundee, another place that pays attention to the ingredients in its drinks.
Ice can be smoked or infused with flavor or effervescence. As it melts, it changes the flavor of the drink. Bars and restaurants that don't have the space or the manpower to freeze, store or convert block ice into cubes can buy special machines and molds that make large cubes. Ice can be shaped into spheres — which have less surface area than a cube and thus melt slightly more slowly — using either a copper or aluminum ice press or a plain old ice pick, a good aim and a sharp eye.
Binoy Fernandez, manager at the Indian Oven downtown and founder of the I.O. Speak, the restaurant's after-hours speakeasy, employs the last method.
Fernandez was among the first bartenders in Omaha to begin experimenting with ice, in large part because of his interest in drinks from the past. He loves to drink and make cocktails from the pre-Prohibition and Prohibition eras, long before ice machines existed.
A few years ago, he began making his own blocks of ice in the freezer at the Indian Oven, using a small Igloo cooler as a mold. When the block was sufficiently frozen after a few days, Fernandez would break off cubes as needed for the Old-Fashioneds, Aviators and other drinks he likes to create.
He uses tap water — in his opinion, a bit of added flavor isn't necessarily a bad thing.
He experimented with the large cubes. It's true that they melt more slowly than small ones, which means the flavor of the drink lasts longer.
But water is an important ingredient in a cocktail, he said. The ice has to melt a little bit before the drink is served. He discussed these and other ice issues with fellow bartenders, sometimes until the middle of the night.
“You would be appalled at the length of conversation you can get into just about ice,” he said.
At the Berry and Rye, a new craft cocktail bar not far from the Indian Oven, ice also is a frequent topic of conversation among the bartenders and owners.
Like Fernandez, Berry and Rye bartender Luke Edson makes his own ice blocks. As he learned how to do it, he experimented with various freezing methods. The ice at the base of the block turns out more clear, he found, if he removes it from the freezer before the top has fully frozen. When the ice freezes solid, it becomes cloudy.
The Berry and Rye owners also installed a reverse osmosis machine for filtering all the water served at the bar, including water used to make ice. That, combined with the right freezing technique, helps make ice clear, said Ethan Bondelid, one of the bar's owners.
Bondelid became interested in craft cocktails around the time he opened another bar, House of Loom, in 2011. But that bar — a hybrid of dance club, avant garde events venue and craft cocktail bar — was too large and its crowd too diverse for bartenders to spend much time cutting the perfect piece of ice. When Bondelid visited craft cocktail bars in New York, Chicago, the Kansas City area and Portland, however, he was quick to pick up on how much attention bartenders paid to ice.
“Ice is often the first thing that's overlooked,” Bondelid said.
Late last year, when Bondelid decided to open a bar entirely dedicated to craft cocktails, he vowed not to overlook ice. In fact, the bar spent about $15,000 on its freezer, ice machine, reverse osmosis purification system, sphere ice press and other tools.
Edson also has been experimenting. He's infused ice with dill and other flavors, and he's tried smoking it with various woods and cigars (he wasn't happy with the result of the smoked ice, which he compared to bong water).
“There's a lot of trial and error,” he said.
Though he's a veteran bartender who has placed in national bartending competitions, Edson feels he still has a lot to learn.
Ross agrees. He's cut up five 300-pound blocks so far, and he's learned something each time. After cubes are cut, for example, it's helpful to separate them in the freezer with waxed paper so they don't stick. It's good to let the ice sit for 10 or 15 minutes before cutting it, so it's easier to work with. And it's a good idea to wear protective eye wear and clothes he doesn't mind getting really wet.
“It does require time, tools and talent,” he said.
But it's crucial for a drink, and it doesn't hurt presentation, either.
“It's beautiful,” he said. “It's glass. You can see all the way through it.”
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