Artisan Ice Is Upon Us

By Steve Trader




IMG_1272You would think that the business of making ice would be pretty simple, right? A water faucet, a couple of trays, or maybe a walk-in freezer. But at the HundredWeight Ice Company in Queens, it’s a little bit different than that.

For starters, the room’s climate-controlled, but not in the way you might think. It’s not even that cold, maybe 70 degrees. And the process still begins with a cube, just a much, much larger one – a 300-pound block that takes three days to freeze from the bottom up, in a specialized tub called a Clinebell CB300X2D Carving Block Ice Maker.

Its two neoprene-lined tubs are each filled with 40 gallons of filtered water and each has a little pump at the top that looks like one you’d find on a fish tank. It circulates the water as it freezes, which prevents oxygen bubbles from getting trapped, keeping the ice densely packed as it creeps upward.

The big, frosty rectangle is removed with the sort of hoist that might lift the engine out of a car in an auto repair shop. Owner Richard Boccato says it’s the most dangerous part of the process, but also one of the most beautiful.

“We set it down, clean it up, and then as it starts to slowly develop surface melt it resembles more of this beautiful, crystal clear monolith,” said Boccato.

It’s given time to sweat, which makes cutting easier, hence the room temperature. And then the crafting truly begins, sort of.

HundredWeight uses a thin butcher’s band saw, first shaving off the uneven sides, before the ice is ready for its final series of cuts. If all goes right, Boccato says it cuts smooth as butter.

The result is HundredWeight’s most popular product — an ice square just a tad smaller than a Rubik’s Cube, sold in bags of 50. The single, large square means less surface area touching your cocktail than a handful of smaller pieces. That means it takes longer to melt, which results in a less-watered down beverage.

A few New York bars have been getting fancy with their ice in recent years, often flamboyantly chiseling cubes off a giant ice block behind the bar. But as far as Boccato knows, his in-house, block ice production facility operating in tandem with his cocktail bar, Dutch Kills, is the first of its kind in Queens.

And business has been very good.

“People see it before they taste it,” says Boccato. “Its opulence and clarity and beauty is something that attracts people prior to even taking the first sip of their drink, so you have to recognize that quality in this ice straight off.”

IMG_1301People like Tim Weinart and his girlfriend Dorothy live in the neighborhood, and have heard positive reviews about the craft cocktails at Dutch Kills. It’s their second time visiting. He’s got tequila on the rocks, and she a gin concoction with pineapple and Campari served in a tall Tom Collins glass.

“I was very impressed and surprised by the fact that it fits the glass so nicely,” said Weinart. “My girlfriend is drinking a drink that is twice the size of mine, and her ice cube is twice the size of mine and perfectly fit to the glass, so they took care of us both in that way.”

“Mine is actually sticking out of my drink,” Dorothy said, laughing. It’s exactly where it was when I started drinking it, it’s not watering the drink down at all.”

There’s no aggressive sales team pounding the pavement on behalf of HundredWeight. Boccato says he simply lets the density of the ice, and the resulting temperature of the drink, do the talking.

The pitch worked just fine on Erik Lombardo, the bar manager of Marta in midtown Manhattan.

“You very simply go, I’m going to demonstrate for you two old fashions and I’m going to make one with the ice you’re using now, and I’m going to make one with the ice I brought with me,” said Lombardo. “And you just make ‘em. You don’t even have to talk it up. No tap dance or shuffle, you just make it, and you go, what do you think? There is no question better ice makes the better cocktail.”

So much better that a bar like Marta pays $35 per bag of 50 cubes, or a 10 by 10 block. Lombardo admits that a bit of that cost is passed on to patrons. And while it doesn’t seem like much when the drinks are $12, it’s still more than what an old-fashioned cube costs.

HundredWeight’s Boccato is sensitive to the perception that his product is just a gimmick.

“A craft ice cube, and I’m saying this with full disclosure, sounds like snake oil,” said Boccato. “And yet what we want to accomplish, what we want to show everyone, is that it does have a clear [no pun intended] purpose.”

It’s hard to argue with the cold hard fact; artisanal ice is officially a thing now. So cheers to that.

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