- Linda Romero
Listen up barflies: There’s a new ice age in America, and, along with infusions, foams and house-made bitters, custom ice has conquered the shaker set. Here, the price of admission is, at the very least, a Kold-Draft ice-making machine. But more and more, cocktail bars are turning to hand-crafted sources, and for this locally we have Bohanan’s to blame.
Most sources suggest the artisan ice craze began in New York, when now-legendary cocktailian Sasha Petraske and partners put the first Clinebell ice-making machine, designed to make large blocks of crystal-clear frozen water for ice sculptors, into operation for the purpose of creating cocktail cubes. With the hiring of Petraske as a consultant for his then-new bar, Mark Bohanan effectively short-circuited the time necessary for a trend to reach San Antonio, and Jake Corney, former head bartender at Bohanan’s, was there when it happened. “The moment I started training with Sasha, he let us know how important ice was,” said Corney.
Critical to clarity, the Clinebell freezes ice slowly in layers with the aid of circulating pumps which also assure that any impurities rise to the top where a thin layer can be sliced or vacuumed off. The process takes at least 72 hours and yields 300-pound bergs—a little bigger than most cocktail glasses.
But it is the glass and the intended use that determines the final shape of the custom ice that Corney, 26, is now turning out with business partner Andy Hack, 25, bar manager at Minnie’s Tavern and another Bohanan’s alumnus. Though the partners are getting their Clinebell product from Signature Ice, a local ice sculpting company, they did have to buy freezers. And they had to learn by experimenting how best to arrive at a finished product.
“We tried wood chisels, Dremel tools, hand saws … but now we use a meat-grade bandsaw; it yields the cleanest cut and the least waste,” said Hack. But that’s just for starters. The Brooklynite wants two-inch cubes, but Esquire Tavern requires them larger; some want slender spears for Collins drinks in tall glasses. Then there are the balls favored by the Hyatt Regency. “Every ball of ice is hand-chiseled. You will nick your fingers at first, and you do tend to go through chisels,” said Hack—who added that listening to heavy metal music helps.
The learning process wasn’t confined to the cutting; even the kind of gloves to wear took research. “We found some not-too-thick nitrite gloves,” said Corney. Cutting temperature—“not right out of the freezer, but not too wet”—is also important.
With knowledge comes speed, yet “we don’t want to outgrow ourselves,” said Corney. And, one suspects, the guys want to make sure their custom ice finds a home at bars that get it—who understand that “a sphere is best in an Old Fashioned as it melts slower than a cube,” said Corney—the thought completed by Hack who continued, “it extends the ‘sweet spot’ of dilution.” Sweet.