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Cube Chronicles: DC Bartenders' Guide to Ice

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Ice is a vital component in cocktails, and lately bartenders are thinking more and more about the best ways to cool drinks. At Estadio, Adam Bernbach makes 2-inch by 2-inch king cubes for gintonics. He makes them in a mold ("you can find one on the Internet and make them yourself at home," he says). They serve two purposes.

"They're very beautiful, and we want the gintonics to be visually appealing," he says. "And the second thing is that I like someone to get through their gintonic without the ice melting, since a lack of dilution is key. They take a long time to melt, and the surface area is optimal for slow melting."

Bernbach said that when creating the menu at Estadio, he almost immediately decided to make king cubes since he was striving for authenticity with his gintonics. "In Spain, they have more than 250 gins and I don't even know how many tonics—15 to 20 maybe," he says. "And they're very specific about what gin goes with which tonic and which garnish, and they serve them in huge Burgundy glasses with gigantic ice cubes. I wanted to do something similar, but do our own take. We make our own tonics and have several different flavors, so the ice cubes are a nod to that."

Bernbach says that he also uses the cubes for old fashioneds or whiskeys served on the rocks.

At the Columbia Room, bartender Matt Ficke hand-cuts ice each afternoon the bar is open.

"We get 25 pound blocks of ice delivered from an ice house in Maryland," Ficke says. "We let it sit for a bit, because if it's fresh out of the freezer, it will crack. We cut it into sheets with a chainsaw, then do the initial shaping with an udon noodle knife, which works well for shaping the ice." Ficke says the Columbia Room brings in the ice, rather than making it themselves, since "if we do it on our own, it gets streaky with dissolved air."

"With the blocks they make, they vibrate the water while it's freezing, so air rises to the surface. Then they can trim it off and the ice is perfectly clear." There's a workspace in the basement to cut the ice, which the Columbia Room has been using since it opened in March 2010. They cut 50 pounds of ice each day.

"We cut the ice into shapes to fit the glasses, like a cube for high balls, or an obelisk for a Collins glass," Ficke says. "We have a medical freezer in the kitchen and keep the ice in it until we need it." Ficke says that "For bartenders, ice is the equivalent of a stove for a chef. It's how we change the temperature of a drink and how we affect the flavor through dilution," he said. "The larger the ice cubes are, the more surface area, and the slower it dilutes. The shape of the ice helps us get proper dilution and flavor."

Bourbon Steak has another answer to the question of dilution—they infuse ice spheres that slowly melt into a cocktail. This summer, head bartender Duane Sylvestre made a martini in which he froze rosewater and vermouth in a mold to make a sphere, and added it to a glass of gin. For the winter months, he'll be offering an ice sphere Manhattan as soon as he perfects the recipe.

"Everyone says that dilution is a problem, since it waters down the spirit, but what if dilution helped enhance the experience?" he asks. "We went through about seven batches before we got the rosewater and vermouth right. For the Manhattan, if we use too much alcohol in the ice we won't get consistent spheres. So we want to replace some of the vermouth with similar flavoring agents, such as herbs from our garden and tinctures."

Sylvestre says that you "pour the spirit in the glass, add the ice and give it a couple quick stirs to start dilution. You've not looking for it to completely melt, but as soon as dilution starts, you'll get aromatics. The longer it sits, the more intense the cocktail gets."

—Amy Cavanaugh


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