The Ice Nerd Cometh: Jonathan Baker On The Best Ice For Cocktails

Food & Drink

In today’s world, we take ice for granted. Open the freezer door and there it is. Order any drink at a fast food shop and your plastic cup will be filled to the brim with it. Ice, it seems, is everywhere, and we never stop to think about its history, its nuances, or its different categories and quality. But people like Jonathan Baker seek to change our perspective on all that.

Baker, a self-proclaimed ice nerd, lives in the frosty city of Portland, Maine — a thriving destination for cocktail lovers. After writing his master’s thesis about glaciers at the University of Chicago, Baker’s interest in ice grew exponentially. Now, he has settled into a life of making cocktail ice, writing about all things frozen, and drinking Negronis.

The West Texas native talks about the current state of cocktail ice in North America, and explains why we should give frozen water a little more respect.

Claudia Alarcón: How did you become so interested in ice?

Jonathan Baker: I’m an ice nerd, going way back. As a kid in West Texas, I would look forward to the few icy days we got every year. I’ve always felt at home around ice — which is partly why I ended up in Maine, a state with a long and storied history of ice production. I also wrote my master’s thesis at the University of Chicago about ice as metaphor in nineteenth-century American literature. Since completing grad school, I’ve continued to read and study everything ice-related that I can get my hands on.

Alarcón: The history of ice is fascinating. What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned during your studies?

Baker: There’s so much to say about this! Before we learned to manufacture ice, frozen water was held in so much more esteem than it is today. Before the modern era, ice was often associated with witches and monsters. It’s not a coincidence that the first time we encounter Frankenstein’s monster, it’s in a glacial cave.

At the same time, ice was also seen as a way of understanding the spiritual structure of the universe. Many philosophers, poets and thinkers — including Newton, Swedenborg, Coleridge, Emerson, Thoreau, and many others—considered the branching, tessellated nature of ice and snowflakes to be a clue to the way the universe is perpetually and consciously unfolding.

Consider how crystals are thought to have mystical properties; well, there was a time when crystals were thought to be ice that had frozen for so long that it turned to stone. It was believed, as with a crystal ball, that it was possible to divine the universe’s true plan by looking into ice crystals.

Beyond these spiritual and philosophical ideas, there’s the straightforward history of the ice industry, which is absolutely fascinating. There was a guy named Frederic Tudor, in Boston in the early nineteenth century, who decided he would get rich by chopping up frozen New England lakes and shipping the ice to warmer climes. People thought he was mad. They believed that the ice would all melt before it got to Barbados or Calcutta. And some of it did melt—but not all of it.

Converting people into ice lovers was an uphill climb for Tudor, and he was thrown into debtor’s prison a couple of times, but eventually he had the last laugh. Much of the world’s reliance on iced cocktails can be traced back to him.

Alarcón: There have been a lot of changes in the world of cocktail ice over the past couple of decades. What prompted this clear ice movement?

Baker: Interestingly, a lot of the credit for those big, perfectly clear ice cubes you see can be traced to one guy: Camper English, who runs a website called Alcademics. In 2009, English began doing experiments to try to control the direction in which ice freezes—and he realized that you can mimic the perfectly clear way that ponds freeze in winter by freezing water in an insulated container without a lid (for example, a cooler or a thermos).

He called the process directional freezing, and over the ensuing decade perfectly clear ice began to pop up everywhere, from upscale cocktail bars to suburban kitchens. Today, there are hundreds of ice mold units available that use the process (Wintersmiths makes a particularly good system). For mass production of clear ice, the major player is a company called Clinebell. They have these big machines that produce perfectly clear ice in huge 300-pound blocks.

On a more macro level, the advent of perfectly clear cocktail ice coincided with a larger move toward the “real” and tactile in world culture, a yearning in popular culture for things that feel handmade. Think of the vinyl record renaissance, the success of used/indie bookstores, the farm to table movement, etc. This movement has often been derided as hipster culture, and bespoke cocktail ice has been ridiculed at times. But the new ice represents a leveling up in cocktail culture.

Yes, these large, clear cubes certainly make cocktails more beautiful, but that’s only part of the appeal. Clear cubes and spheres are also free of impurities, unlike traditional ice, and they keep drinks colder for longer without watering them down.

Alarcón: You think about ice in philosophical, ecological and even spiritual terms. Do you think people take cocktail ice for granted?

Baker: I do think that! Most of us take ice for granted because it’s so readily available. You just have to open the freezer or push the lever on the soda machine. It’s easy to forget that, while humans learned to make fire 400,000 years ago, we only learned how to make ice a little over 150 years ago.

Alarcón: What changes do you see happening with cocktail ice in the future?

Baker: It’s already happening! Clear ice was only the first phase of the ice revolution, and those cubes and spheres might be thought of as blank canvases. Mixologists and ice nerds have applied endless creativity to them, from the addition of botanicals (think clear cubes with edible flowers, mint leaves, or peppers) to infused ice (tea, coffee) to stamped and etched cubes, featuring elegant patterns and embossed logos.

Alarcón: Who’s making the most attractive ice in America?

Baker: There are a lot of companies mass-producing beautiful botanical ice, including Mixology Ice in Miami and Penny Pound Ice in L.A. But for my money, Leslie Kirchhoff of Disco Cubes is making the prettiest ice around. She’s a DJ and photographer, and she crafts beautiful cubes and spheres with flowers inside, for high-end parties hosted by Gucci and Prada. She wrote a great book about cocktail ice, which is also called Disco Cubes.

Alarcón: You make ice yourself, right?

Baker: Yes! I make ice for three of the most elegant cocktail bars in Portland, Maine, Via Vecchia, Blyth & Burrows and Papi. I run a couple of Clinebell machines, and I chop up these big ice blocks into two-inch cubes using a bandsaw. I also make botanical ice at home, using molds. I love it.

Alarcón: If people want to learn more about ice, where should they go?

Baker: The number of truly great books about ice can be counted on two hands, unless you consider books about polar exploration, and then the list becomes almost endless. But, for anyone wanting to read about the spiritual history of ice I recommend (fittingly) The Spiritual History of Ice by Eric G. Wilson. Another great one — perhaps the most eloquent of them all, is I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford. Just gorgeous writing, and so deeply reasoned. Both books are relatively academic but worth the effort.

If you’re looking to read about the unique and strange qualities of the polar ice caps, check out The Ice by Stephen J. Pyne. For the history of the ice industry, Jonathan Rees is the go-to guy, and especially his book Refrigeration Nation. There’s also a forthcoming book by Amy Brady called Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks. I received a galley of it from the publisher, and I enjoyed it very much. As far as fiction goes, there’s a sixties dystopian fever-dream novel called Ice, by Anna Kavan, which has gained more attention in recent years, and for good reason. It’s a brilliant book.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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