The Ice Program

IMAGE: The Vigne Glacier in the Concordia region of Pakistan, via NASA.

This week, Edible Geography‘s partner site, BLDGBLOG, is coordinating a nine-blog-strong online conversation tied to the Glacier/Island/Storm architecture studio at Columbia University this spring. In addition to looking forward to contributions from some of my favourite sources (a456, HTC Experiments, InfraNet Lab, mammoth, Serial Consign, Soundscrapers, and Quiet Babylon), I managed to find some edible/geographical inspiration in the course materials and will be joining in the discussion with a couple of posts of my own.

BLDGBLOG‘s original brief asks studio participants to “look at naturally occurring processes and forms—specifically, glaciers, islands, and storms—and to ask how these might be subject to architectural re-design.” As a case study for the glacier module, BLDGBLOG then refers to a little-known but centuries-old vernacular tradition of growing artificial glaciers in the Himalayas.

Detailed instructions for artificial glacier construction are available in this 2008 New Scientist article by Ed Douglas, “How to grow a glacier,” which in turn draws heavily on the master’s thesis of Norweigian International Environment and Development Studies student, Ingvar Teiten (available as a pdf).

IMAGE: “Glaciers to Order” infographic from New Scientist.

Fascinatingly, it seems that ice can be differentiated by gender, at least for glacier-building purposes:

A “male” glacier is one that is covered in stones and soil and moves slowly or not at all. A “female” one is whiter, and grows more quickly, yielding more water. “It is important to have both sexes,” a glacier grower from the village of Ghwari in Baltistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, told Tveiten, “The ice which we found underneath the rocks in our own valley was only of one sex. Therefore it didn’t increase. We had to add the opposite sex to it so it could increase.”

As it happens, glacier builders are not the only ones studying ice typologies.

In the past few years, several avant-garde bartenders have taken their cocktailing to the next level by implementing an “Ice Program.” A recent article in the The Atlantic quoted Toby Maloney, a partner in Chicago’s Violet Hour bar, saying:

“Ice is as important to a bartender as a stove is to a chef,” he explained, in the cadence of an oft-cited mantra. “With a chef, it’s a matter of heating things up. With a bartender, it’s a matter of cooling things down. You’d never tell a chef he could have only a stove-top burner or a fryer. And I couldn’t do without at least three or four different types of ice.”

IMAGE: Cheater ice. Photo by Melissa Hom, from a slideshow in New York magazine.

For mixologists, one of the main ice form differentials is melt rate. In all the but most exclusive bars, for example, most drinks are still made using “cheater ice” – standard, machine-made, rounded half-cylinders, often with a hollow interior. This shape is quick-melting and designed to fit the maximum number in a glass. According to “molecular mixologist” Eben Freeman, as quoted in New York magazine:

Really, these are designed to cheat the consumer. They’re designed so as many as possible can be packed into a glass, therefore taking up the most room. If you’re serving just sodas, there’s less ounces of soda that goes into the glass, and if you’re making a mixed drink, it tastes strong, even though there isn’t that much booze in there.

Using cheater ice in an Old Fashioned results in “a debased ‘cocktail lite,’ with thin flavors and watery insipidness,” writes Atlantic columnist, Wayne Curtis. “A cheater-ice cocktail is chillier (numbing the taste buds) and more watery (making it flat).”

IMAGE: Kold-Draft ice. Photo by Melissa Hom, from a slideshow in New York magazine.

Freeman, Maloney, and their fellow ice-aficionados prefer to recreate the forms of ice listed in historic cocktail recipes: block, chunk, cracked, or snow. The popular Kold-Draft machines (from roughly $2,500, new) turn out perfect, solid 1.25″ cubes, which, bartenders note, means that you use just three or four cubes in a Collins glass.

Depending on the drink in question, others swear by two-inch cubes made in plastic household organiser trays (“which happens to fit just perfectly inside a double-old-fashioned glass,” says Eben Freeman), or even eight-inch tall columnular structures that, according to Kathryn Weatherup of New York City’s Weather Up bar, “fit perfectly into the rocks glasses that we use for the shaken-cocktail drinks.” Huge four-by-three inch ice blocks work best for punch-bowl service, while at the opposite end of the scale, fast-chilling crushed ice, or “snow,” is perfect for “juleps and swizzles.”

IMAGE: (left to right, top to bottom) 2″ ice cube, hand-carved ice sphere, snow, and an 8″ ice cube column. All photos by Melissa Hom, from a slideshow in New York magazine.

There is, as yet, no mention of gendered ice in the cocktail literature. No slow-moving manly chunks, on which a cask-aged rye would feel at home; no whiter, faster-melting feminine ice that would add a certain sparkle to a Cosmopolitan or Appletini; and certainly no glacially-married combination for the unisex martini.

I can’t imagine, however, that once introduced to the magic of artificial glacier-growing, the ice avant-garde would simply import its gender stereotypes and be done.

Instead, why not build their own on-site, custom glaciers?

IMAGE: Ice-picked ice from Milk and Honey bar, whose owner Sasha Petraske told New York magazine, “We freeze filtered water into a block and then cut it.” Photo by Melissa Hom.

After all, Japanese-trained mixologists already freeze water into large blocks, in order to hand carve spheres, diamonds, or abstract ice shards using both knives and ice picks. A small home-grown glacier, built in a bar’s basement or backroom, could not only sustain a weekend’s worth of heavy drinking, but also provide creative bartenders with a much greater sculptural scope.

Then there is the question of ingredients. While traditional techniques call for pebbles and sawdust to be embedded in a glacier’s starter matrix, today’s cocktailing elite could substitute orchid flowers, raspberries, or espresso beans to create flavour accented glaciers – and then invite guests to watch them hand hew berry-studded chunks, the perfect finishing touch for a Brownie Cognac or Irish coffee. The theatrical potential of custom artificial glaciers might be second only to the champagne fountain.

IMAGE: (left to right) Raspberry-embedded ice, ice-tea cube, and orchid-flower-embedded ice. All photos by Melissa Hom, from a slideshow in New York magazine.

Sophisticated bartenders already use double- or triple-filtered water for their cubes, but in order to build and maintain your own in-house glacier, it would make sense to set up a sponsorship deal with a high-end mineral water (Canada’s Berg, perhaps, made exclusively from Newfoundland icebergs) – or perhaps even a liquor company, for pure, glacier-fresh Absolut ice crystals and shards of frozen Courvoisier. In fact, multiple mini-glaciers would be required to permit the most ambitious alcoholic pairings.

As part of the current artisinal trend in beer, wine, and spirits, if not in terms of form and flavour design, vernacular Himalayan glacier grafting techniques have the potential to revolutionise the cocktails of tomorrow.

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  1. Thank you for your fantastic writing, it’s just brilliant! I cannot believe they have male and female glaciers, that is just so bizarre!!

  2. joe corsi
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    the champagne tower was surely mentioned in jest but it i think has more relevance here than it first seems. the idea of a theatrical alcoholic element in a restaurant/bar/party/etc. seems quite fitting. rather than maintain this glacier in the basement why not bring it upstairs and let it melt through out the night. people are constantly returning to the melting “glacier” to refill their glasses. the alcohol is already frozen into the mix, therefore this glacier has been frozen to subzero temperatures (-16F for 80 proof vodka). on a hot summer night this could be all the air conditioning a bar needs.

    as brice mentioned the formal design of ice cubes or the glacier could be quite important. in designing this slow melting alcoholic glacier defining points of drip could be established as places for drinks to be refilled. or air pockets that become reservoirs (essentially a punch bowl) could be placed before the freezing process. as long as it doesn’t end up a giant ice swan i think it could work quite well.

  3. Brice Linane
    | Permalink

    Although I’ve never worked behind a bar, I find it difficult to imagine a bartender showing up early to work to carve, shape, or infuse mass quantities of ice cubes from a miniature glacier in the basement. With this said, it’s not difficult to imagine someone designing a machine intended to produce deceitful ice cubes (cheater ice). Rather than take the traditional route of “old fashioned” ice, I propose the implementation of designed ice cubes. With the potential to combat the gender issues discussed in this post and tap an entire underground culture of design (which I’ve only recently stumbled upon), designed ice has unlimited possibilities. Refer to the following links:

    On a more serious note, I feel slighted by this so called “cheater ice”. Unable to combat this issue, I’ve been forced to develop a strategy for quickly melting ice cubes …drinking faster. I’m not sure how the above information will be integrated into any of our projects but nevertheless, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

  4. Merritt Palminteri
    | Permalink

    I am both enchanted and dismayed by the fetishization of ingredients in food, and now water/ice.

    Imagine a gourmet Slushee: hand-carved slips of alkaline-free spring ice, harvested in early autumn, drizzled with Rainier Cherry syrup…

    This post also prompted me to wonder about the origins of the shaved ice that supply all the little frio frio carts common in Brooklyn and Queens during the summer – it’s likely the ice machine at the local bodega. But what if there were a soft glacier in the dark of some Bushwick warehouse? What if the sno-cone ingredients were as closely sourced as their high-brow cocktail cousins?

  5. Worth also digging back to the pre-refrigeration days when ice would be harvested from lakes, stored in great barns, and cut up and sold to keep iceboxes cold during the summer. Linking that into Pykrete seems to have some pretty promising implications, I think.

    Especially if we don’t assume that we can throw BTUs at the refrigeration problem for the indefinite future.

  6. great post. having worked behind a bar in my younger years, i am curious as to the spatial implications of ice (iceries??) and how the different types, forms, and formulas for ice create a whole new type of service experience. In blade runner, the Asian scientist harvesting eyeballs in the frozen laboratory comes to mind. would bartenders go behind bar, throw on their insulated lab coat and create or grow their ice forms to be used in service that night? would they re-emerge with frozen vessels that shift form as does temperature?

  7. I’m reminded of an old “hillside ice factory” I was recently researching for Geoff’s studio. The factory was a failure, only lasting a few years and bringing in little to no revenue for most of those years. While it should not be classified as a glacier, it did possess some of the characteristics needed for growing one. The conditions/strategies necessary for turning the nearby stream of water or snowmelt into ice are quite similar to that of an artificial glacier.

    It leads me to believe that if it were only built 150 years later, it might have been slightly more successful, living off the wallets of the elite that request only the most pure and customizable ice.

  8. My family is from Newfoundland and harvesting iceberg bits that have sloughed off the actual full size bergs is a pretty common practice. You boat out, scoop some cooler-sized pieces out of the ocean, hose off the briny sea water, and take a hammer to the rest, cracking it up until it’s glass-sized. Store in a freezer and serve at parties.

    The ice is clear and the water tastes pure but frankly the people melting it down to bottle are missing the point. The same trapped air that climate scientists use to reconstruct our environmental past is present in these bits, causing the ice to fizz lightly as it melts.

    Combine that with the very subtle distinctions made between types of peat, makes of cask, banks of vineyard and the flavoured air at oxygen bars and a whole new front opens up in the high end drinks market.

    The bar-made artificial glaciers suggest custom layerings of water and air that only the finest connoisseurs can truly appreciate. Sealed rooms with custom mixes pumped in. Carefully maintained pressure, bubble separation, and other factors, to be hand-carved into just the right shape.