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Should bartenders use hand-carved ice?

Is hand-cut ice better than machine-made versions, or is it too laborious to deal with? Two leading bartenders take to their soapboxes.

Should bartenders use hand-carved ice, or does machine-made suffice?

As the bartending community looks to high quality local and seasonal ingredients, is it time they paid more attention to the unsung hero of the cocktail world – ice?

Used to chill and dilute cocktails, ice is an essential ingredient behind any bar. But dig a little deeper into the seemingly simple world of ice and you’ll soon find that there are myriad different styles, and equally differing levels of quality.

There’s an undeniable sophistication that comes with hand-carved ice blocks – but is the quality truly superior to that of machine-made cubes?

The practicality of hand-cut ice is also worth considering – particularly for high-volume bars. Would consumers be willing to wait a little longer for their drinks on the promise of a hand-chiseled cubes?

There are many questions to be asked. So without further ado, let the debate commence: should bartenders use hand-carved ice?

No: Samuel Jeavons, group head bartender, London Cocktail Club, UK

Obviously the main goal of using ice in cocktails is to get your drink cold and to consistently get it to the same temperature with the same level of dilution. I can’t argue with some of the benefits of using slowly frozen ice that has been hand carved because it will fit the glass better and will give you less dilution. But that technique doesn’t always work for every bar.

For us at London Cocktail Club, as a high-volume bar with nine sites, using slowly frozen, hand­-carved ice isn’t that feasible. With our bartenders at different levels, and some who we’re teaching as they go along, it could lead to all sorts of unusable ice – and even injuries. Because of that, across all our bars we tend to favour ice moulds and good quality ice machines that we keep well maintained so we can have really solid ice that, theoretically, will not melt as quickly as bad ice.

We also don’t hand carve our ice because when you start to tie in prep times, and the cost of those prep times, we would be talking about one person at each venue spending an hour-­and-a­-half cutting ice every night, and this all adds up.

Across all our London Cocktail Club bars last year, we sold something like 140,000 Old Fashioneds. So when you take that into consideration, the amount of ice cutting, the training and the work that would go into that means it just wouldn’t be feasible.

For us, using high quality ice machines is the best way to provide consistency in a high-volume bar like ours. When you look at it, the most important thing overall is providing the best consistency you can from the ability of your bartenders. You can only ever be as strong as your weakest link, so you have to make sure that everything you do is within your bartenders’ reach while you teach them the next steps.

If you’re using the best machines for your ice – we only use Hoshizaki ice machines at London Cocktail Club – and if you’re keeping them well maintained to produce good quality ice to shake with, you’re going to be getting the same level of dilution each time. This is what gives you consistency for all your drinks.

Yes: Andrew Dickey, head bartender, 9Below, Dublin, Ireland

9Below is a bar right in the heart of Dublin city centre; we specialise in fine wines, Champagnes, spirits and cocktails. In cocktails, ice is as important as any other ingredient and is often overlooked. It’s a crucial ingredient and is the binding agent for all mixed drinks. At 9Below we use it while shaking, stirring or throwing cocktails, depending on how much dilution the drink requires and whether it’s served straight up or over ice.

Hand­-carved ice is an amazing addition to have in your bar. To make it, you need block ice machines that use a directional freezing process. They also agitate the water while it freezes, allowing all the impurities to rise to the top. This leaves the ice crystal clear and means it has a greater density that slows down the rate of dilution, so you can enjoy an Old Fashioned or Negroni for longer because it will not become over­-diluted quickly.

Another advantage to using block ice is that it can be cut to any size, whereas most ice machines just produce standard one inch by one inch cubes. You also find most ice machines produce ice that is hollow in the middle, which means the rate of dilution is much quicker compared to the much denser block ice you carve by hand.

I know there are some very good­ quality ice machines that make excellent ice for shaking and stirring – at 9Below we use Hoshizaki machines. However, there are certain drinks I would use only block ice with. If I made a Dark ‘n’ Stormy or a Penicillin using fresh ginger extract, I would shake it vigorously with one block of ice to make sure I didn’t over­-dilute the ginger.

I have noticed more bars looking at their ice programmes, especially in the world’s top bars. I think it depends on the venue but bespoke bars and cocktail bars should try to make ice themselves or buy in clear ice from ice companies.

As well as being majorly important to the quality of drinks, ice is also important in helping your bar stand out on social media. I’ve been working with hand-­carved ice for more than four years now, and people still lose their minds when they see it being made in front of them. So hand­-carving ice can really benefit a business in a number of ways.

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