While it’s easy to take it for granted, the hottest thing in cocktail culture right now is actually the coldest: ice—yes, ice.
Artisanal ice is having a moment in cocktail bars across the country, with master mixologists freezing oversized cubes, fashioning fancy shapes, and even going so far as to carve the cold stuff by hand. In Baltimore, the city’s top cocktail clubs are making their own boutique ice, too.
Sure, it sounds pretentious—it’s just frozen water, right?—but when you think about it, that arctic ingredient is the foundation for every drink. The right cube can enhance the quality, flavor, and experience of your elixir, keeping it colder longer and less watered down. And, of course, it looks cool.
But it’s not as simple as cooling H2O to 32 degrees or below. Ice is an art form that requires a certain level of skill, elbow grease, and pride.
“The modern cocktail didn’t exist before the advent of ice being shipped around the world,” says Lehn Robinson, who helps run the ice program at Clavel. “We create these beautiful, fleeting things to honor that history, in the hopes that it won’t be forgotten.”
In The Drink
The Bluebird Cocktail Room
This new upscale cocktail room is full of literary references (like tipples inspired by Faulkner and Fitzgerald), European influence, and crystal-clear ice. Co-owner Paul Benkert freezes his own 300-pound block that’s cut by chain and band saws to create rectangles and cubes. “Specialty ice doesn’t need to go in a drink,” he says, “but it’s a lot of fun.”
On any given night, ice sculptors Dre Barnhill and Lehn Robinson can be found meticulously molding gemstones and spheres at this hip mezcalaria. “It is the garnish,” says Robinson with a smile.
After a trip to The QG barbershop, head to this sixth-floor speakeasy for the giant cubes and Prohibition cocktails you’d expect after a cigar and shave. “It’s the majority of your drink, so it does matter,” says bartender Jeff Bejma, who crafts the clear ice.
This subterranean cocktail spot sometimes serves drinks with artisanal ice. Try the handcrafted hailstones during special events, like guest bartender pop-ups and Monday tiki nights. Says owner Phil Han, “Hand-cutting ice is a labor of love.”
Don’t sleep on this Mount Vernon beer bar’s killer cocktail list, with at least two drinks featuring hand-cut ice. Try them in the Chartreuse Old-Fashioned, with chamomile honey and orange bitters.
- Twice a month, Clavel receives a 300-pound ice block that’s split into sixths using hand chippers, cleavers, and mallets. Bartenders aim for clean cuts and crystal clarity.
- The smaller ice blocks are then moved to the bar where they’re broken down into about 36 smaller cubes.
- Finally, bartenders shape each cube by hand into multifaceted gemstones or spheres before adding them to your drink. Salud!