Making Artisan Ice at Home

clear ice
Image via Wikimedia commons.

If you've ever seen an ad for whiskey, you've probably noticed the large, clear ice cubes that give the drink just that touch of class. So much more aesthetically pleasing than your sub-par, cloudy, homemade ice cubes. Well, those aren't real ice cubes, obviously–they're plastic. But recently, with the growth of "cocktail culture," the search for clear ice cubes in real life has reached new heights and resulted in something you probably never thought you'd want or need: artisan ice.

Yes, first we had artisan coffee, then artisan toast ($4 a slice in San Francisco), and now there's artisan ice. These large, completely clear ice cubes can be had for a one dollar surcharge in fancy bars from Portland to NYC. According to Joe Ambrose, a bartender at the W Hotel in Washington, D.C., and the founder of his own artisan ice company, customers "get upset" when they run out of artisan ice and are forced to serve regular ice. THE HUMANITY.

There are reasons, though. Not only does artisan ice make your drink look 300x more swank, clear ice melts more slowly, making your drink simultaneously colder while preserving the alcohol content for a longer period of time.

For two, clear ice imparts a different mouthfeel, or texture, to the alcohol, making it taste more velvety and smooth.

It's popular to blame the craze for artisan ice on hipsters, but it actually has its roots in Japan. Hidetsugu Ueno, one of the most famous mixologists in the world, popularized artisan ice with his famous "ice diamonds," hand-carved blocks of fist-sized ice with numerous facets that reflect the light. The facets are pure eye candy, but Ueno says that the pure water and slow freezing process–the blocks he orders take at least three days to freeze entirely–contribute to the taste of the cocktail or liquor served, as well. And hey, if you're going to stop by Ueno's fancy cocktail lounge in Tokyo, Bar High Five, and order one of the world’s best single malt whiskys (like Yamazaki 1984), do you really want to enjoy your drink with some lame-o pedestrian ice? Or do you want the biggest, baddest, hand-carved ice cube you've ever seen in your life in that glass? I'm guessing the latter.

The thing with artisan ice is, unlike coffee or toast, it is actually really difficult to make. What makes ice cloudy are the bubbles and minerals trapped in the ice as it freezes. If you make ice in trays, you've probably noticed that the top of the cubes tend to be clear and the bottoms rough and cloudy. This is because the microbubbles of air in the water float to the top as the ice freezes, but are unable to escape because the top of the ice cube is already frozen.

To avoid this, modern artisan ice makers in the US generally use a Clinebell, a giant machine that freezes huge blocks of ice (also used in ice sculpture) from the bottom up, allowing bubbles to escape. These boulders of crystal-clear ice are then cut up into large, 2-inch cubes using saws.

Unfortunately, making clear ice at home is next to impossible. Some recommend using boiled or distilled water, but this still doesn't solve the problem of air bubbles because home freezers simply freeze the water too quickly. The only feasible way to get around this is to slow the freezing way, way down–but how?

The method I've found that works: insulation. Get a cooler, line it with plastic or a Ziploc bag, and fill it with water to create a large block of ice. The block has to be substantial or it will freeze too quickly, even inside the cooler. Leave the cooler open just a touch and set it in your freezer. Depending on how much water you've used, it could take several days to freeze completely, but by the end you should have a fair-sized chunk of clear ice (you can cut the cloudy end off if need be). Carefully (! seriously, be careful, these suckers are slippery) cut or chip the block down and voila, you have your very own artisan ice!

Fancy cocktail bars, who needs em?

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 edition of The Pueblo PULP.