Ice’s job is not just cooling your drink. It has now gone premium, with focus on size, shape, purity and hand-done embellishment that can make or break a cocktail
Premium restobars in Mumbai are invested in ice, whether it is the quality of the water with which it is made or its shape. Here, Pritam Ghyar, head bartender at Akina, display the tools he relies on to carve a sphere or a diamond-shaped ice. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
What does ice in your drink mean to you? Is it only to keep it cool? Think again. The city’s restobars no longer see ice as a colourless extra ingredient in your drink. In fact, much research and thought is being given to its preparation: the water and machinery used; the shape it should take—Spherical? Cubes? Diamond or conical? Small cubes? A beautiful rose?
The trend, says Vikram Achanta, co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, was seen about a couple of years ago when mixologists in Japan started hand-carving ice into various shapes.
“While its prime purpose is to chill the drink,” says Rohan Rege, “ice adds essential dilution to a drink. When added, it is either stirred or shaken. As the ice melts, it enhances the flavour of the spirit. If you try to drink whiskey neat, it won’t go down very smoothly, but if you add a splash of water, it softens, smoothens and enhances the soft subtle flavour.”
Remember villain Robert’s (played by actor Jeevan) iconic irreverent dialogue in Amar Akbar Anthony as Ramlal (Pran) begs at his feet? Whiskey ka mazaa kyun nahin aa raha? “Kyunki hum ice dalna bhul gaya tha…”
The assistant food and beverage manager at St Regis Hotel adds that every high-end bar relies on large blocks of ice over smaller cubes that melt quickly. “Cocktails are meant to be enjoyed over a long period of time,” says Rege. “But common ice dilutes the drink swiftly, so while it tastes perfect when made, flavours are lost quickly. A high-end bar always relies on larger blocks of ice.” Rege was named bartender of the year in India in 2017, by World Class Drinks.
Kevin Rodrigues, bar manager at Hakkasan and Yauatcha, says that though a patron might see ice as “an extra, we design recipes keeping the kind of ice in mind, thus it is integral to the drink.”
Large blocks are used in spirit-forward drinks such as Aged Negroni or Old Fashioned, when mixologists want to control dilution and ensure the drink isn’t too watery. A large sphere is used in high-end single malt whiskeys served on the rocks. “Smaller cubes are for iced teas and cocktails when we want fast dilution,” explains Rodrigues, “For Mojitos, we choose crushed ice.”
Hakkasan Mumbai, which laid the table a decade ago, was one of the first to invest in a machine by Japanese firm Hoshizaki to make ice in-house. “We were way ahead in cocktail culture because we borrowed the recipes and techniques from Hakkasan London,” says Rodrigues with pride, “and since they used this machine, we followed suit.” While it makes ice cubes, for large blocks, they turn to moulds.
The diamond-shaped ice that Ghyar carved for a drink
Hakkasan is an exception. Most city restobars source ice from a third party, or do both. Among the latter is Bandra-based Japanese restaurant Akina, and Delhi’s much loved cocktail-bar PCO that came to Lower Parel last year.
“If you have a small bar, it is better to make your ice in-house,” says Pritam Ghyar, head bartender at Akina. “Clear ice differentiates a great drink from a good one because it melts slowly and has fewer impurities that would impact the flavour. We used to make ice in-house entirely because it allows us to carve different shapes. Then we started outsourcing a large chunk for convenience, but still make a small batch to experiment with and carve different shapes such as a spear or a diamond.” At Akina, water is boiled at 100 degrees Celsius to eliminate impurities. “Even then, some remain,” says Ghyar. “So we follow a reverse ice-making process, where the water freezes from bottom to top. The particles float up and can easily be discarded. We carve shapes from the slab using a serrated knife and a pointed chipping tool.”
Annu Kumar, founder of JUSTice, uses machines like chainsaw to cut slabs of ice into smaller blocks
PCO uses a combination of chainsaw and Japanese knife. “We use water refined using a high-grade RO (Reverse Osmosis) filtration process; the same used in our food,” says Delhi-based Rakshay Dhariwal, managing director at Pass Code Hospitality, the parent firm. His team has been doing this since 2015, and has mastered the craft.
The demand for large blocks of crystal clear frozen water is the reason behind the existence of firms such as city-based Premium Ice and Delhi’s JUSTice. “About a decade ago, Grey Goose’s brand ambassador was visiting various bars in India and I accompanied him,” says Annu Kumar, a former bartender. “Wherever he would go, he would stress upon the ice. That stayed with me.” Kumar went on to form JUSTice in 2021. The momentum came from the realisation that no Indian establishment made it to the list of best bars in the world. The pandemic made room to think.
Rohan Rege, Rakshay Dhariwal and Vikram Achanta
Kumar’s attention focuses on the base H2O. “I used twice-filtered water to reduce minerals, making it as neutral as possible,” he says. Here too ice is frozen such that impurities are pushed to the top and can be easily removed. It takes three to four days to create a 150 kg block. “A sudden change in temperature could make the ice vulnerable to breakage,” he explains. “It’s vital that the temperature decrease gradually every 10 to 12 hours, slowing down the freezing process that leads to fewer impurities.” Hacksaws and chainsaws are used to cut the block. “It’s a dangerous task,” he says. “The block can weigh 150 kg and the ice is slippery.” His company provides ice in cubes, bars and spheres. The last shape, he says, needs manual carving and is the trickiest.
Closer home, Premium Ice relies entirely on imported machinery to shape crystal clear ice, and is one of the leaders in the market. Introduced to address the concerns around hygiene, they rely on RO filtered water, double-wrapped their ice in food grade plastic, and transport it in insulated boxes
with dry ice.
“Besides hygiene and quality as well, a clear and bigger block of ice also adds to the visual presentation and the customer entering a premium bar is definitely paying attention to the ice added to his or her drink,” says Achanta of 30 Best Bars India, adding that if cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Goa want to be seen on the world cocktail scene, “then they should know that anybody [a mixologist or brand ambassador of a premium liquor brand] coming to their bar would be paying attention to the quality and clarity of the ice.”
We guess that it’s time to respect the supporting actor in a story where the spirit is the hero.