Jonathan Baker On The Best Ice For Cocktails

In today’s world, we have to take ice for granted. Open the freezer door and there it is. Order any drink at a fast food outlet and your plastic cup will be filled to the brim with it. Ice is, it seems, everywhere, and we never stop to think about its history, its nuances, or its different categories and qualities. But people like Jonathan Baker try to change our perspective on all that.

Baker, a self-proclaimed ice nerd, lives in the frosty city of Portland, Maine—a thriving destination for cocktail lovers. After writing his master’s thesis about glaciers at the University of Chicago, Baker’s interest in ice grew exponentially. Now, he’s settled into a life of making cocktail ice, writing about all things frozen, and drinking Negronis.

The West Texas native talks about the current state of cocktail ice in North America, and explains why we should respect frozen water a little more.

Claudia Alarcón: How did you become so interested in ice?

Jonathan Baker: I’m an ice nerd, going way back. As a kid in West Texas, I would look forward to the few icy days we got each year. I’ve always felt at home around ice – and that’s partly why in Maine, a state with a long and storied history of ice production. I also wrote my master’s thesis at the University of Chicago about ice as a metaphor in nineteenth-century American literature. Since I finished grade school, I have continued to read and study everything related to ice that I can get my hands on.

Alarcón: The history of ice is fascinating. What are some of the most surprising things you learned during your studies?

baker: There is so much to say about this! Before we learned about making ice, frozen water was much worse than it is today. Before the modern era, ice was often associated with witches and monsters. It’s no coincidence that the first time we meet Frankenstein’s monster, it’s in a glacial cave.

At the same time, ice was also seen as a way to understand the spiritual structure of the universe. Many philosophers, poets and thinkers – including Newton, Swedenborg, Coleridge, Emerson, Thoreau, and many others – considered the branching, tessellated nature of ice and snowflakes to be a clue to the way the universe grow perpetually and consciously.

Consider how crystals are thought to have mystical properties; Well, there was a time when a crystal was thought to be ice that had been frozen for so long that it turned into stone. It was believed, as with a crystal ball, that it was possible to diagnose the true plane of the universe by looking at ice crystals.

Beyond these spiritual and philosophical ideas, there is the simple history of the ice industry, which is extremely interesting. There was a man named Frederic Tudor, in Boston in the early nineteenth century, who decided to get rich by cutting up the frozen lakes of New England and shipping the ice to warmer areas. People thought he was mad. They believed that all the ice would melt before it reached Barbados or Calcutta. And some of it melted – but not all of it.

It was an uphill climb for Tudor to convert people into ice lovers, and he was thrown into debtor’s prison a few times, but in the end he had the last laugh. Much of the world’s dependence on iced cocktails can be traced back to him.

Alarcón: There have been many changes in the cocktail ice world over the last few decades. What triggered this clear ice movement?

bakery: Interestingly, much of the credit for the large, perfectly clear ice cubes you see can be traced to one person: Camper English, who runs a website called Alcademics. In 2009, English began experimenting to try to control the direction in which ice freezes – and realized that you can mimic the perfectly clear way that ponds freeze in winter by freezing water in an insulated container without cover (for example, a cooler or thermos).

He called the process lead freezing, and in the decade that followed perfectly clear ice began popping up everywhere, from upscale cocktail bars to suburban kitchens. Today, there are hundreds of ice mold units available that use the process (Wintersmiths makes a particularly good system). For mass production of pure ice, the main player is a company called Clinebell. They have these big machines that produce perfectly clear ice in huge 300 pound blocks.

On a more macro level, the arrival of perfectly clear cocktail ice coincided with a greater move towards the “real” and tactile in world culture, looking forward to popular culture for things that feel handmade. Think of the vinyl record revival, the success of used/indie bookstores, the farm-to-table movement, etc. This movement has often been derided as hipster culture, and cocktail ice has at times been derided. But the new ice represents a level up in cocktail culture.

Yes, these big, clear cubes definitely make for a prettier cocktail, but that’s only part of the appeal. Clear cubes and spheres are also free of impurities, unlike traditional ice, and keep drinks colder for longer without watering them down.

Alarcón: You think of ice in philosophical, ecological and even spiritual terms. Do you think people are embracing cocktail ice because of it?

bakery: I think so! Most of us accept ice because it is readily available. All you have to do is open the freezer or push the lever on the soda machine. It’s easy to forget that while humans learned to make fire 400,000 years ago, we only learned to make ice a little more than 150 years ago.

Alarcón: What changes do you see happening with cocktail ice in the future?

baker: It’s already happening! Clear ice was only the first stage of the ice revolution, and those cubes and spheres could be thought of as blank canvases. Mixologists and ice nerds have applied endless creativity to them, from adding botanicals (think clear cubes with edible flowers, mint leaves, or peppers) to infused ice (tea, coffee) to stamped and etched cubes, bearing patterns elegant and embossed logos. .

Alarcón: Who is making the most attractive ice cream in America?

baker: There are many companies mass-producing beautiful botanical ice, including Mixology Ice in Miami and Penny Pound Ice in LA But for my money, Leslie Kirchhoff of Disco Cubes makes the prettiest ice around. A DJ and photographer, she makes beautiful cubes and spheres with flowers inside, for high-end parties hosted by Gucci and Prada. She wrote a great book about cocktail ice, also known as Disco Cubes.

Alarcón: You make your own ice, right?

baker: Yes! I make ice for three of the most elegant cocktail bars in Portland, Maine, Via Vecchia, Blyth & Burrows and Papi. I run a couple of Clinebell machines, and I cut these big blocks of ice into two inch cubes using a bandsaw. I also make herbal ice at home, using molds. I love it.

Alarcón: If people want to learn more about ice, where should they go?

bakery: The number of truly amazing books about ice can be counted on two hands, unless you include books about polar exploration, and then the list becomes almost endless. But, for anyone who wants to read about the spiritual history of ice I recommend (appropriately) A Spiritual History of Ice by Eric G. Wilson. Another great one – perhaps the most eloquent of them all, is I May Be Sometime: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford. Gorgeous writing, and so well reasoned. Both books are quite academic but worth the effort.

If you want to read about the unique and strange qualities of the polar ice caps, check it out The Ice by Stephen J. Pyne. When it comes to the history of the ice industry, Jonathan Rees is the breakthrough man, and especially his book Refrigeration nation. There is also a forthcoming book by Amy Brady entitled Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks. I got a copy of it from the publisher, and really enjoyed it. As far as fiction goes, a sixties dystopian fever novel is known ice, by Anna Kavan, which has attracted more attention in recent years, and for good reason. It’s a great book.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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