ICU, Part One

I’m one of those people who brings his own ketchup to burger joints.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise I’m on the verge of becoming an icehole: someone who brings their own ice cubes to bars and restaurants. (Still, a wee bit better that than being a Glasshole)

And why, pray tell, would one do that?

Because, of course, clear ice is so god-damned pretty.

 


It wasn’t until I went to Tales of the Cocktail in 2012 that this registered. On my first hot humid night in New Orleans, I walked over to the Swizzle Stick Bar and sat at the counter. I sipped my drink (surely written down somewhere), and stared at the huge slab of ice resting in the middle of a counter.1

A few days later, at the Suntory seminar on Japanese whisky2, the brand ambassador nonchalantly picked up a knife, grabbed an ice cube the size of a fist, and carved it into a beautiful clear sphere that dazzled my shot of whiskey. And another. Another another.

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I melted.

—pretty much ruining ice for me forever. Wherever I went, hence, I would stare forlornly at the clouded ice cubes in my drinks. Home life was horrible: the ice maker in the freezer issued orange-slice shapes of despair. And all my attempts to make clear ice cubes were for naught.

It is true that you can make ice spheres at home. But garbage in, garbage out: the Cirrus ice ball press might produce geometric perfection—for $700 to $1100, one should hope so—but even the demonstration uses a nearly opaque block of ice that grates on my soul. (The Cocktail Kingdom’s $150 version seems to work just as well—though mind the sleight of hand where the internal crystals of the cube they press magically disappear when they put the sphere in the glass.) You might as well use the $11 Tovolo molds.

Even Seattle corner stores issue opaque chunks of what they call “party ice”. (In contrast, the ice at Barcelona convenience stores are quite clear, each the size of a large spool of thread. Which is great for the gintonics you might drink there.) Your best bet is to order from a local ice provider.


What makes ice cloudy, anyway? Is it impurities? Bad parenting?

Clear ice is essentially one large crystal structure. Kevin Liu explains that there are several factors that can interfere with this:

  1. When water is freezed quickly, a multitude of ice crystal structures form and mesh together haphazardly.
  2. If water is supercooled—frozen below 0°C, the normal freezing point—the structures are smaller and less transparent.
  3. Because any amount of water will take up more space as ice, rapid freezing can cause those structures to stress and crack.
  4. Impurities can also contribute, although dissolved oxygen is the biggest problem, since it forms air bubbles.

As you might gather, the key is to freeze water slowly, and truth be told, I am far too lazy for anything that requires much care.

Camper English (read his article on the History of Ice Cubes on Modern Farmer) makes his cubes by putting an open cooler inside a freezer, but I’ve resisted the siren call of a freezer chest. (Spending $500-700 for a freezer just to make ice seems wasteful.3)


I glumly stirred my drink.

J said I was being an asshole.

“But the NOLA ice was so pretty. And this—”

“—Is. Dross.”

“Yes, dear. They were. This is. Let it go.”


So you can imagine my delight at seeing the Ice Baller Kickstarter project. Clear ice. In the shape of spheres. At home.

And yet when the kit arrived, I was filled with dread. Would they truly live up to their promise? Or would this be yet another KickFail™4?

I was pleased to discover that, notwithstanding some annoyances5 with actually extracting the balls from the container, the ice spheres were clear and round. Not perfectly spherical. Nor perfectly clear. Still, an improvement:

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I jumped up and down.


Yes, yes, I’ve seen the Mother Jones article about ice cubes. I’ve seen it many times. It’s dumb. I’ll explain why some day.


  1. These ice blocks, the same used in ice sculptures, are made with clinebells
  2. I have inexplicably expensive taste. I don’t even have to try. Give me five whiskies blind, and the one I like best will of course be the most expensive. And so, I found myself pining over the 25 year old Yamazaki—exceedingly rare, at the time six hundred dollars at a liquor store in Chicago, and one of my life’s regrets that I didn’t fly out to collect it. The price has since doubled, and is even harder to find. I might yet manage another sip at Canon.
  3. said with no trace of irony 
  4. To be honest, most of my Kickstarter products have been pretty much as expected. 
  5. Actually, getting the balls out is a real pain in the ass. I hope the new Ice Chest will prove easier to use. (There is also the Neat Ice Chest, which I haven’t used, but has good reviews.) 

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