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.