Cocktails

These Ice Cubes are in all Your Favorite Cocktails. Meet the Man Who Makes Them

Kurtis Williams shows off a large-format spherical ice ball.
Kurtis Williams shows off a large-format spherical ice ball. Courtesy of Artisan Ice
When The Gladly opened in late 2013, the restaurant was lauded for its innovative cocktails. A particularly crowd-pleasing element of its beverage experience was its signature ice balls. Using a special press, staff would craft sparkling spheres of ice right at your table.

“[The ice balls] were a really cool way to elevate drinks, and we were one of the few places that was doing something like that. Everybody was incredibly interested in them,” says Kurtis Williams, beverage manager for The Gladly and its sister eatery, Citizen Public House. “At the time, nobody was making clear ice here. We were outsourcing it from other states, bringing it in from Las Vegas and cutting it down ourselves with chainsaws.”

Williams knew there had to be a better — and safer — way to get custom ice, and with the Valley’s cocktail scene on the rise, he was inspired to start a craft ice business that would supply superior ice products to bars and restaurants.

In 2016, Williams opened Artisan Ice, which offers high-quality, extra-dense, extra-clear custom ice cubes, ice balls, and other ice products.

“The first two to three years were hard because craft ice wasn’t standard in a lot of cocktails here,” he recalls. “I had to convince people that this was going to be a trend and explain to them why they needed it.”

As with diamonds, ice is judged by its clarity, density, size, and cut, all of which add to the overall quality and appearance of the cocktail.

This is especially important in cities such as Phoenix, where the tap water is known for being hard. High in minerals and impurities, it can taste salty or bitter and can even exhibit a less-than-pleasant odor. When frozen, hard water becomes cloudy, and the impurities can result in cubes that melt quicker or fall apart easily.

“Ice needs to be pure, dense, and slow-melting, so it won’t pollute the cocktail,” Williams says. “Some whiskeys, for example, are upwards of hundreds of dollars a pour, and if you’re going to put an ice cube in it, it better be the cleanest, purest, densest ice that you can find.”

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Artisan Ice creates crystal-clear ice cubes used in specialty cocktails.
Courtesy of Artisan Ice
Aaron DeFeo, a partner in Arizona Cocktail Weekend and the co-owner of award-winning cocktail lounge Little Rituals, notes, “The quality of ice is very important in a city like Phoenix that has very hard water, and Kurtis' ice is pretty much free of impurities.”

DeFeo adds, “Aside from the aesthetics — everyone probably thinks it looks better to have a clear ice cube in their drink— if a customer orders a very rare whiskey, and you pour it over a fuzzy, dense white ice cube that crumbles as soon as you touch it, I don’t think he or she is going to be thrilled with that purchase. There is definitely a qualitative effect of having pure ice.”

To produce its crystalline cubes, Williams’ company uses large-scale machines called Clinebells that form 300-pound blocks of ice from water that is filtered and agitated for three days. This forces the air and impurities to rise to the surface and leaves the remainder of the block shimmering and transparent.

“You’ll notice that your ice at home or in your refrigerator has a starburst pattern in the middle. That’s because the ice freezes from all directions and pushes everything toward the center,” Williams says. “Our ice is clear because it freezes unidirectionally, from the bottom, and the water circulates the entire time it is freezing. This pushes all of the impurities to the surface and leaves a thin layer at the top that we cut off and discard.”

The staff then break down the blocks into cubes and other shapes using lathes, band saws, and other precision food-safe equipment.

One 300-pound block yields approximately 500 to 600 2-inch-square cubes, which perfectly fit rocks glasses.

In addition to the industry-standard cubes and 2-inch spheres, the team at Artisan Ice can create an array of custom products.

“We’re a fully custom shop,” Williams says. “We have lots of varying cuts — tall ones, short ones, Collins spears. Because most of the work is done by hand, we’re not limited on the size or shape we can offer.”

Infused ice is another common request. Flowers, fruit slices, herbs and vegetables suspended in cubes not only add color and dimension to a cocktail but also can enhance the drink’s flavor profile as the ice melts.

“If you have a cocktail that includes cucumber, rosemary, or another fruit or vegetable combination, we can infuse that into the ice to help elevate the experience,” Williams says.

Today, Artisan Ice’s products are found in more than 250 bars, restaurants, resorts, and country clubs across the region, from Tucson to Flagstaff, and the company also is the official ice supplier for Arizona Cocktail Weekend.

“This past year, we had 44 bars that came in from across the world for Arizona Cocktail Weekend, and it was really reassuring to be able to offer them their precise ice needs,” DeFeo says. “These are people who are at the top of their industry, and they were blown away by the quality and quickness with which Artisan Ice delivered.”

Jason Asher, co-founder of Barter & Shake, the hospitality group behind cocktail bars UnderTow and Century Grand, has been a client of Artisan Ice since its inception.

“[Custom ice] really does elevate the overall appearance of the cocktail,” he says. “And ice like the kind that Kurtis supplies inhibits dilution in such a way that it slows it down. It takes a drink and lengthens its life.”

The crystal-clear cubes are an integral part of the presentation of one of UnderTow’s newest tipples, a clarified milk punch called Clear Skies & Tropical Winds.

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The Clear Skies & Tropical Winds cocktail at UnderTow features a cube from Artisan Ice.
Courtesy of UnderTow
“The clear ice really helps to illuminate the drink, which is also clear with this slight pink hue. It's beautiful,” Asher says.

Over at The Gladly, a cocktail called Coffee & Cigarettes incorporates a large cube for a dramatic effect. The ultra-cold ice helps slow the dissipation of added smoke, which billows upwards as the beverage is poured into the glass.

“The ice doesn’t distract from the presentation, and then when you go to drink it, it’s just a beautiful cocktail,” Williams points out.

As Arizona’s cocktail scene continues to grow in size and reputation, so does Artisan Ice. Williams is currently expanding the company, which now has eight employees, and moving it from its current location near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to a larger facility, complete with walk-in freezers for production, in the Scottsdale Airpark area. The new warehouse is scheduled to be operational by the end of August.

While tableside ice balls remain a staple of The Gladly’s cocktail menu, specialty ice is now a necessity of all top-tier cocktail bars.

“Five years ago, craft ice was a novelty,” says Asher. “Now, if you don’t have it, then something’s wrong.”

According to DeFeo, having an amazing ice service signifies that a city is at a high level in terms of cocktails.

“In order for a business such as Artisan Ice to thrive, there has to be a lot of bars purchasing large amounts of ice. The fact that it’s growing and being successful is a barometer for the rest of the industry and how it’s going,” he says. “Artisan Ice really puts Phoenix on the cocktail map.”
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