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Food - Cold hard truth

In cocktail-making, ice matters. Four Atlanta bartenders explain why.

Thursday August 20, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Ice is not just something that makes your drink cold. Many Atlanta bartenders care deeply about the ice that goes into their cocktails. Some take extreme measures to ensure that the dilution rates and temperatures are just right. Consider the reasoning of renowned Atlanta barman Greg Best:


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“Can cocktails be made with any ice? Sure. Can you brush your teeth with any water? Yeah, but chances are you will be avoiding the stagnant marsh in the backyard. Clean, clear, dense ice makes for a better control of dilution and chilling of a drink. The lower the quality of the ice, the faster it will melt, and the greater chances it could impart an ‘off’ flavor. Plus, how else will we convince our friends that we are truly enlightened cocktail geeks if we don’t have at least three different sizes of handcrafted ice in our freezers?”

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Like Best, One Flew South’s master mixologist Tiffanie Barriere, Miles Macquarrie of Kimball House, and Castellucci Hospitality Group Beverage Director Christopher Dobson all make compelling arguments for why ice is one of the most important ingredients for a perfectly balanced drink.

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Tiffanie Barriere became fascinated with ice 12 years ago while serving Southerners their iced tea. She’d pile as much ice as she could into each glass because she hated how fast small amounts of ice would melt and ruin the tea. “Nerdiness kicked in then, I believe,” Barriere says. Fast forward six years, and Barriere found herself as the opening bartender at One Flew South at Hartsfiled-Jackson International Airport. She knew that there was only one ice machine that would work for her: a Kold-Draft. “Kold-Draft is king,” Barriere says. The top-of-the-line ice machine can cost anywhere from $1,000-$6,000 and can pump out more than 300 pounds of dense ice each day. If you want to control dilution, the rate at which ice melts and waters down a drink, ice density is most important. By definition, Barriere says, a proper cocktail — shaken or stirred — needs water, but only about an ounce. One Flew South’s ice program, however, doesn’t end with a fancy ice machine. If a drink requires more dilution, say to mellow out its powerful punch, it should be served over crushed ice. If a guest orders a boozy tiki drink for example, Barriere uses a giant wooden hammer to pulverize ice within a heavy-duty Lewis canvas bag. Unlike cotton or nylon towels, she says, ice does not stick to the material while it is being crushed.

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At Kimball House, Macquarrie prefers the term “ice situation” to the term “ice program” because it’s not really a program, it’s just the way he handles his ice. Maquarrie sources massive slabs from Crystal Image Ice, a local company that serves many of Atlanta’s top bars. Behind the restaurant, barbacks chainsaw the 200-pound slabs in 2 x 2 ¼ inch cubes. They keep one of the restaurant’s rocks glasses with them as a guide to ensure no cube is too big. Macquarrie also uses a Scotsman ice machine for when he wants tiny dense ice pebbles called nugget ice and a Kold-Draft machine to make enough good ice to fill shakers and mixing glasses during cocktail building. “What makes shitty ice shitty is the amount of excess surface water,” he says. He prefers clean, dense ice cubes because when you crack one open, the ice is bone dry.

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Christopher Dobson, who oversees the beverage program for the Iberian Pig, Double Zero Napoletana, Sugo Kitchen, and Cooks and Soldiers, orders 200 pounds of slab ice from Crystal Image each week. When the ice arrives, bartenders use chainsaws and a super special wooden and stainless steel ice pick called a trident to break it down into smaller pieces. The blocks are stored in an ice-only freezer behind the bar. Before service, bartenders set the ice out in front of the bar allowing it to warm up a bit before service because it’s easier to cut and transform the slabs into smaller cubes. It’s an attractive asset to display at the bar. When guests ask about it, Dobson uses it as an opportunity to explain the importance of slow dilution. “The big ice cube dilutes at a slower pace while not watering down the cocktail or whiskey and preserving the flavors meant to be enjoyed,” Dobson says.