Until this summer, the hottest look in craft ice for cocktails was custom-branded clear cubes embossed on top with some sort of logo. Such simple times!
Fall’s most forward-looking cocktail content creators have already moved on to the patterned cube, now seen in honeycombs, stripes, spikes, scales, zigzags, harlequin, and other decorative adornments. The new look of fancy ice now includes all six sides of the cube.
Lost? Late to the trend? The world of the ice influencer moves fast, so let’s get up to speed.
A little over a decade ago, entrepreneurs including Hundredweight in New York, Fat Ice in Austin, and Penny Pound Ice in L.A. established the business model of providing specialty cocktail ice. They bought large ice sculpture block makers that produce 300-pound clear blocks, cut up the blocks with bandsaws, and delivered the large (usually 2-inch) clear cubes and tall spears that fit into Collins glasses to bars.
For home mixologists and bartenders in smaller markets, these clear cubes were unavailable. Ice doesn’t travel well in the mail. Those folks committed to the effort were able to make smaller quantities of clear ice in a hard-sided, open-top insulated cooler inside a freezer, in the method known as “directional freezing,” which I first described in 2009. At first, this required bartenders to cut the resulting slab of ice into cubes by hand, but in the years since, a slew of clear ice cube trays based on the same process have launched to meet those needs.
Put a Stamp on It
This ice was clear but unadorned. Then ice sculpture companies that had been slow to adapt to the cocktail ice market finally got in on the game, and were able to use their pricey CNC (computer numerical control) machines to drill deep designs like bar logos and holiday-related icons into cubes that last throughout a drink. Specialty cocktail ice providers, in turn, invested in these machines themselves.
But small-market bartenders and home mixologists had options here too: Clear ice can be embossed using a brass stamp of the kind used for wax sealing envelopes for wedding invitations. These can be found for less than $10 online and in craft stores, and can press a pattern into a cube or two until they need to be warmed up for reuse. Bartenders began purchasing these and larger branding irons from companies that make them for leatherworking and stamping barbecue meat. A few new companies like Cocktail Brandalism in Slovakia and I Love Cocktail in Vietnam popped up to specialize in this type of tool beginning around 2015.
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Stamped logo ice was all well and good for a while, but a few companies were already putting patterns on all sides of an ice cube. The Edinburgh Ice Company made honeycomb ice as far back as 2018. The Tampa Ice Plant has also been making honeycomb ice since 2021 for the dining outlets and bars at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, taking over the account from a previous ice supplier.
Tampa Ice Plant founder Hoang Le says he had a large metal plate with a honeycomb pattern custom made, costing him about $2,500 at the time. The company staff cuts individual cubes from an ice sculpture block and then rolls them across the plate, which is heated on a warm griddle to maintain constant temperature. Le says it is a full time job to make all the cubes for the massive account. Since then they’ve used the I Love Cocktail company to make more plates and offer a range of other patterned ice, including that with a fish scale design.
The Ice Race
The quest to make patterned ice at home inspired nerds like me to go walking up and down the aisles of industrial-sized hardware stores in search of textured metal objects. (The best I came up with was a Tardis-shaped cube made with a cooling rack for baked goods; not super impressive.) Instagrammer and TikToker icemydrink had better luck with a meat tenderizer: They had been using the flat side of the tenderizer to melt hand-carved ice cut up from a cooler to fit into their glass. Then they had the brilliant idea to turn it around and use the spiky side to create the most blinged-out ice cube to grace the internet.
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Though this stylish cube was reshared on the large account Licensed to Distill, things really hit full steam this summer when an ice plate called The Ice Designer debuted. It is essentially a big ice stamp without the handle. The heavy flat metal plate retails for nearly $200 and makes five different patterns when an ice cube is pressed on it. It’s also customizable so that bars and brands can add logos or choose specific patterns.
The Ice Designer was launched by Tony Gonzales, who is no stranger to icy entrepreneurship. In 2020 he and other partners released the Ghost Ice system, an industrial-quality clear ice cube tray initially meant to be used exclusively in bars. Endless requests for a home-sized version flowed in, and they followed with a compact clear ice cube tray that launched about a year ago.
The first ice design plate on the market may have been launched by the Russian company Lamberta Ice earlier this year, but it was The Ice Designer that sent the internet spinning when it hit the internet in June. The thick, deep grooves in the highly conductive metal plate make for patterns that emboss the ice fast, and last relatively long in a drink — plus they look really, really good on camera.
In July, the Instagram account Really Ice to Meet You shared a video of the Ice Designer in action that has since garnered over 300,000 likes and in August, the High Proof Preacher account posted a video that has seen likes in excess of 1.4 million. Several of that account’s other posts also feature the Ice Designer and have gathered an additional half a million or so likes. Gonzales estimates the total global views of The Ice Designer videos from all accounts on all platforms to be over 100 million now. It’s fair to say that most people had never seen anything like it before, and a whole lot of folks soon wanted one of their own.
A huge number of orders for the plate followed, and Gonzales says he has now shipped over a thousand plates and counting. He has since left his full-time job to work on the business, and estimates the orders are split about evenly between home consumers and bars.
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What’s the Appeal?
Patterned cubes look tremendously good sitting inside a glass, but so did clear cubes compared with cloudy ones, and so did cubes with logos on them. This ice also requires six times the work to stamp it on all sides. So why does it seem like suddenly everyone is on board with the fussiest form of ice yet?
“For Ghost Ice, we had to convince people why clear ice was better, and now we’re not having to convince people,” says Gonzales. That product launched just before the pandemic hit, and Gonzales cites the period for its success in two ways. Some bars that were purchasing clear cubes lost access to their ice providers, and made the switch to producing their own big ice in-house.
Amateur drink makers, on the other hand, turned to home bartending during the pandemic, and to showing off their home bartending skills online. Clear cubes make a notable aesthetic difference in drinks, particularly if one is competing for views (and brand sponsorships that sometimes follow) on Instagram.
Gonzales says: “I think photographers and influencers who [create] content love the Ice Designer because it adds texture to the clear ice. If you’re going to go the extra step and do clear ice already, the patterned ice will make garnish pop — it levels up.”
For the Instagram bartender making one drink at a time, stamping a few patterned cubes takes only a little effort. But with the notable exception of Tampa Ice Plant, few specialty cocktail ice providers are offering to sell hand-rolled patterned ice cubes in bulk just yet. One bar director told me that he looked into the economics of it, and found that it would have doubled their per-cube cost.
Another ice provider laughed at the suggestion that they’d press the patterns into the ice themselves, but they do sell a plate for customers to take back to their bars with them to press à la minute. So far, this is the new business model, with ice providers in Turkey, France, and Chile, among other countries, selling some version of an ice plate for customers to use at home or the bar with the clear cubes they sell. In just a few months, ice plates in all sizes and patterns have come onto the market to meet the demand for the freshest look in frozen water. So much for glacial pacing.
As we head into winter 2022, we are still early in the mainstreaming of patterned ice, but word is spreading fast. Bars that are already serving patterned ice include The Commoner in Los Angeles and Weft & Warp Art Bar + Kitchen at the Andaz hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz. Gonzales says he’s made sales or had inquiries from Africa, Mexico, and a lot of tropical destinations after the Ice Designer videos went viral. “I get hits from islands I’ve never even heard of!” he says.
One can imagine where this will lead: tartan plaid cubes to pair with specific brands of Scotch whisky, oversize leaf patterns for tropical bars, herringbone and polka dots and barbed wire in others. The future of cubes is no longer smooth.
The article Cool Cubes: How Patterned Ice Conquered #Drinkstagram appeared first on VinePair.