There are few places beyond a cocktail conference where you will witness people getting far too excited over ice. Eric Alperin of The Varnish in Los Angeles called it "geeking out about ice" and he was right. The other presenters of the seminar were Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin of Hundredweight Ice and Cocktail Services and Amanda Boccato, Lillet Brand Ambassador and the way this hour worked out between the three of them and the audience was more like a forum than a seminar and it was quite enjoyable.
The premise of this talk about ice was to encourage bars to develop large block ice program. Essentially, bars and lounges can enhance their patron's experience by using large blocks of ice instead of cold draft and other common options. The benefits are that the ice lasts longer, the drinks are diluted with balance, and bartenders can prepare any style of ice from a single block with considerable ease after training.
The ice melt issue was demonstrated during the class (and it's an experiment you can do yourself) by placing chipped, cube, and block ice in separate glasses and we observed the speed of the melt with each. Within a few minutes the chipped ice was nearly gone, the cubes were melting on the outside, and the block was holding its own. This is because the mass of the block keeps the entire piece of ice colder, longer, the thinner, smaller pieces of ice have more surface area which speeds melting. Watching this experiment will make almost any drinker ask themselves why they would want that much water in their drink. There is a difference between proper dilution and watered down and this begins with the choice of ice.
This conversation has been in the minds of many bar owners: To develop an ice program or not. Though it may not be right for every establishment, those who are looking to enhance their drinks will definitely want to consider it and there are two ways to go about it: make your own or find a block supplier.
First off, the ice block program involves commitment that the staff will be breaking down ice on a regular basis to make it workable in the bar. One begins with a large block of ice, with the size being around 10"x20"x40" (the block in the photo is half of this), and cuts this down to cubes of the desired size to fit into glasses and shakers. Shaved ice, collins spheres, and smaller cubes can also be made from the block. The presenters say that if you are very efficient, you may be able to get upwards of 700 drinks out of one block, though it is typical to average 400 rocks glass-worthy blocks. For an even more impressive glass presentation, the small blocks can be carved into balls.
Some bars, such as The Varnish, are investing in their own ice block machines. Alperin says that this is a learning experience and not for everyone, though a worthy endeavor if you want full control over your ice program. Clinebell Equipment Company's machines are an ice industry standard and are designed to create the clearest ice blocks, which are sought after by ice sculptors. The other option of finding a supplier for block ice may be more feasible when implementing an ice program, and Gelnaw-Rubin suggested asking sculptors in your area about their source, but cautioned that you ensure the ice is food grade. The price of a block ranged from $150-250 in the seminar's discussion, though the feeling that the lower of that scale is more common and the higher end is overpriced.
Beyond getting the blocks of ice, a bar needs to implement a program for breaking it down. In the photos on the left above you can see two techniques. On the top, Gelnaw-Rubin uses a Japanese ice saw and below is Alperin using the chainsaw. This was a joke to illustrate the effectiveness of going the efficient route and using power tools and the first time I've seen a chainsaw at a cocktail event. Precision cuts and "safety first" has that block down to glass size within minutes and crystal clear ice is ready for the next shift. Of course, there are little tricks that the ice program initiate should learn. One of which is to allow the block to stand at room temperature for about an hour. This sweating time gives the ice more clarity and helps prevent cracking while it is being cut.
Integrating an ice program into your bar is a worthy feat if you have the right market and if you are thinking about developing one I encourage you to get the advice of those who are doing it.