To some, ice is just frozen water. To others, it serves primarily as a means to keep drinks cold or — if they're really funny — to drop down someone's pants. Then there's the adage about Eskimos having at least nine different words for the stuff, so it's obviously pretty important to them.
Turns out, ice is also important to finer purveyors of alcohol. It must be of the highest quality so as not to compromise the integrity (i.e., taste) of the beverage. The expectation of high-quality ice makes "Phoenix's finest" frozen tap water a big no-no at Roka Akor's Shochu Lounge in North Scottsdale.
The folks at Roka Akor purchase 300-pound blocks of purified ice from a company called (no joke) Arizona Ice Man (www.arizonaiceman.com) that they then saw into blocks small enough to place on top of the bar. The purified water makes the ice crystal clear; at night they light the block up from underneath, creating what appears to be a beautiful glass sculpture. Because purified ice melts much more slowly than regular ice, the block sits on the bar from open to close, losing little mass and retaining its shape remarkably well.
More ways to make your drink cooler with ice:
Freeze a flower petal, mint leaf or cherry into your own purified ice cubes.
Use food coloring and/or fruit juice to create colorful ice that adds a complementary hue or flavor to your drink.
Make your own 3-inch ice spheres using silicon molds. The brand Muji sells one for $11.75 online at muji.us.
Buy novelty-shape ice cube trays. The brand Fred offers a ton at worldwidefred.com.
Add booze with lower alcohol content (so it will actually freeze) to your ice cubes for the opposite of a watered-down drink.
Roka Akor's purified ice isn't just for looks or bragging rights; it's purchased especially for the bar's shochu drinks. Shochu is a Japanese spirit similar to vodka. It is distilled, usually with sweet potato, rice, wheat, soba, or barley. The spirit is very delicate, however, and the slightest impurity or dilution from regular ice can ruin the drink. Roka Akor stocks more than 40 flavors of shochu, and the bartenders are perpetually creating new shochu-based cocktails, so it is integral that the bar uses high-quality, purified ice.
Once the ice block has reached a consistent standing temperature, you can slice it, as you would a loaf of bread, keeping the block's rectangular prism shape despite the continuous hand carving. As each shochu drink is ordered, the bartender uses a special saw, chisel, and ice pick to carve a solid iceberg out of the slice and drop it into the glass of shochu.
This hand-carving method is not only part of Roka Akor's atmosphere and restaurant/bar concept, it is a ritual that started in Japan and has developed over recent years in many Japanese bars and restaurants, as well as in the highest echelon of hip drinking spots like Milk & Honey in London/New York and Seven Grand in Los Angeles.
Some of these swankier bars combine hand-carved ice with machine-made shapes, depending on the drink. Even in Japan, where the trend toward hand-carved ice began, it became apparent that hand-carving perfect spheres to order was difficult and time-consuming in a busy bar, so clever Japanese engineers created a machine that melts an irregular-shaped chunk of ice into a perfect sphere in seconds.
These machines create spheres ranging from 30 to 80 millimeters in diameter (i.e., the size of a small marble to that of an 8-ball), so different sizes are meant for different drinks. A large ice sphere is optimal for an Old Fashioned or a whiskey on the rocks because a single, solid sphere of ice melts more slowly than multiple smaller spheres. The smaller sizes are best for shaken drinks, because they won't chip and explode the way cubed ice often does.
You can purchase ice-ball makers online, but most machines cost at least $1,000, so explore all options carefully. So far, the few bars in the Phoenix area that have adopted the ice sphere have found more economical ways to achieve the same result.
Noca, on Camelback Road, uses a silicon mold to make large spheres for its signature Tangerita cocktail (made with Sauza Hornitos tequila, house-made sour mix, and tangelo-blood orange juice) as well as other selected classic pours and cocktails, including the Booker's Manhattan.
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Cartwright's Sonoran Ranch House & Lounge in Cave Creek uses its own method to hand-carve ice spheres the before they are to be served; just ask for "The Rock" when you order high-end bourbon, Scotch, or whiskey. The bar also uses the sphere in specialty house cocktails like the One-Eyed Jack, made with bacon-infused bourbon, blood orange cello, and (of course) The Rock.
Want to buy some fancy ice? There's a Los Angeles-based company called Névé that specializes in luxury ice. Made with twice-filtered water, Névé ice is put through a reverse osmosis system and then infused with minerals.
The company makes Collins cubes for high-ball glasses, rocks cubes for small glasses, ice spheres and shaking cubes, as well as custom orders like spheres with cherries or strawberries inside. It's only sold in LA., but Névé ships orders anywhere in the United States.