Ice — pure, long-lasting and virtually sculptural — has become a luxury in the hands of artisan bartenders like Michel Dozois.
By Bradley Tuck 07/01/2010
“He who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow, despairs of success, has never been, is not and never will be a hero in war, love or business.”
— Frederic Tudor, 1805
As you reach into your cooler to grab a cold beer this 4th of July, spare a moment to reflect on the American hero who made that possible — Mr. Frederic Tudor. It seems hard to believe that something we take for granted like ice could ever have been an exclusive luxury, but indeed it was. In 1800, ice was cut from frozen Maine ponds in wintertime, shipped at great expense to the homes of the very wealthy and stored by them in covered wells. Harvesting it was labor intensive — involving cutting by hand, using large saws — and hazardous, with cutters running the risk of falling into frozen ponds. During shipment, wrapped in sawdust-filled crates, a large proportion of the product would of course thaw, so what survived was dear: In 1790, a ton of ice cost hundreds of dollars.
In 1805, one Frederic Tudor, scion of a wealthy Boston family, was sharing some cold beverages and ice cream with his brother, William, at a family picnic. One of them joked that the plantationers in the sweltering Caribbean would give their arm to be enjoying cold drinks. And in the tradition of most incredible enterprises, from that tiny seed of a thought, an amazing industry was born. Frederic convinced William to invest in a plan to send a shipload of ice from the pond on the family estate to Martinique, where, he was convinced, it would be greeted with something approaching hysteria, and their fortunes would be made.
Interesting Ice Fact No. 1
The U.S. expends 10 million kilowatt hours per day on just making ice. The fuel this uses is equivalent to the daily gasoline consumption of a city the size of San Francisco.
On Feb. 10, 1806, Tudor’s first brig, dubbed “Favorite,” left Boston docks bound for Martinique in the French West Indies, some 1,500 miles away. While Tudor was sure of his venture, others were less enthusiastic. In a moment of foresight, the Boston Gazette declared the next day: “No joke. A vessel has cleared at the Customs House for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not prove a slippery speculation.” Unfortunately, while not a total failure, the ice did indeed get a cool reception. Tudor’s brother had procured orders and government contracts, but much of the frozen stuff melted during the three-week journey. And despite managing to sell much of what was left, the brothers suffered a loss of $4,500 — a huge sum in those days — and William left the business.
Interesting Ice Fact No. 2
Homemade ice cubes are cloudy because of dissolved minerals and air in the water. To make clear ice cubes, use filtered water, boil it, allow it to cool and then boil again. Use this water, after cooling, to fill your ice cube tray. Freeze as slowly as feasible. Your ice cubes will be clear!
The following year, after managing to raise funds for another ice shipment, Tudor attempted another run to the Indies. Again he lost money and, while in the past his wealthy upbringing had shielded him from the worst impact of these losses, family members were at the time experiencing some hardships of their own. And a series of such shipments landed Tudor in debtors’ prison three times from 1809 to 1813.
Displaying a mixture of stubbornness and true American grit, Tudor was — wisely or otherwise — undeterred. He was utterly convinced that ice would one day be his fortune. What was needed was demand for the product. Tudor traveled the country, convincing barkeeps to offer patrons a drink with ice at the same price as one without. He’d supply the ice for free. Sure enough, once drinkers had a few sips of the cool beverage, they were smitten.
The hot cities of the South were the hungriest for ice, and Tudor was even shipping to Havana, Cuba. But the process of harvesting ice was still expensive and laborious, involving a mountain of hand labor. In 1826, Tudor’s foreman, Nathaniel Wyeth, came up with the idea of using horse-drawn plows to criss-cross the ice with a large blade, cutting it into a huge grid that could then be lifted out, piece by piece, by men with crowbars. The huge pieces would then be sawed into manageable 300-pound blocks and floated downriver to icehouses, where they’d be arranged into stacks as much as 80 feet high. Needless to say, this wasn’t the safest industry in which to work, and injuries were common, with slippery blocks crushing workers and mangling limbs. The ice also lost considerable volume on its journey downriver, with up to 90 percent of it melting en route. Still, demand was strong, and Tudor’s business grew.
Interesting Ice Fact No. 3
Shirley MacLaine once said: “I like playing Vegas or any of those places where there is ice in glasses. Soon as you hear ice, you know you stink. If they’re drinking, you haven’t got their attention.”
In 1833, now at the peak of his career and known as “The Ice King,” Tudor shipped 180 tons of ice to Calcutta, India, to supply the British colonists there. The journey took four months and, despite elaborate insulation and storage procedures, only 100 tons remained. For the next 20 years, the colonists consumed as much ice as he could ship, leaving him with a profit over the period of more than $200,000 on that route alone. By this time, the railroads had started their progress across the U.S., making the shipping of ice faster and cheaper. Other entrepreneurs used Tudor’s methods to begin their own ice-distribution operations, and Tudor became a less important player in the ice game. In 1864, he passed away, leaving behind a fortune estimated at $11 million in today’s dollars.
Meanwhile, the popularity of ice exploded, despite concerns about the purity of water supplies near rapidly expanding towns. It wasn’t until the 1900s that consumers, tired of messy deliveries and wary of increasingly polluted natural ice, began to shy away from the product. The introduction of electric refrigeration in the early part of the 20th century finally sank a pick between the shoulder blades of the natural ice industry, with ice finally available in a convenient form — the cube — at home.
Interesting Ice Fact No. 4
Permanent snow and ice cover about 12 percent of the Earth’s land surface. Eighty percent of the world’s fresh water is in this form. Névé is the name given to the snowpack that forms on mountaintops, eventually forming a glacier.
Someone else with a passion for ice is Michel Dozois. The Montreal-born bartender, who has shaken cocktails at forward-looking Los Angeles restaurants like Church and State, and Comme Ça, is obsessed with the stuff. Standard ice cubes, he believes, are problematic. They dissolve too quickly in the shaker or the tumbler, overly diluting the drink. They don’t make the drink cold enough, until they’ve diluted it excessively, and they continue to water down your tasty — and these days, expensive — beverage as you nurse it. What’s more, cubes not made with purified water can leave behind foul odors and flavors.
Now, Dozois is not the first guy to have noticed this. That’s why mixologists and bartenders like Eric Alperin and Chris Bostick at downtown L.A.’s intimate lounge, The Varnish, have been carving huge cubes by hand for their immaculately crafted libations. But, points out Dozois, this is laborious and time-consuming. The solution, he believes, is larger chunks, frozen longer, that can’t be made with traditional ice-making apparatus. And in a move worthy of the aforementioned Frederic Tudor, he has started his own L.A.–based ice-manufacturing company, Névé Luxury Ice, whose Pasadena clients include such foodie-friendly establishments as Elements Kitchen and the Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa. Using a process as secret as the mystery ingredients in Coca Cola, his company makes perfectly cut cubes of ice from ultra-purified water, stylish enough to be used on the set of Mad Men.
But it isn’t just the clarity of the water that he says sets his ice apart from mere, well, ice. His cubes are frozen for 48 hours — which slows down their dilution rate — and fashioned into distinctively sized products: the “Rocks” cube and the “Collins” cube. The “Rocks” is a gorgeous cube, 2 inches across on every facet. It isn’t molded but cut instead from a much larger block. This gives it a brutal, sculptural quality as it nestles in a tumbler. Actually, it doesn’t so much nestle as crouch, with its corners almost touching the sides of the tumbler. The volume of the single cube is 50 percent of the volume of a rocks glass, which is the amount of “normal” ice you’d put in. And it takes forever to melt. His cocktail-shaker cubes, with their corners cut off so as not to break in the shaker, add about 20 to 35 percent more liquid to a cocktail during the shake. Regular cubes can add up to 75 percent of additional liquid to the drink.
The “Collins” cube, designed for tall drinks, is a fat spear of frozen water. Also available for custom orders are ice “spheres” crafted in different colors and flavors, incorporating fruit, herbs or flower petals. A mixed 10-pound bag of Rocks, Collins and shaking ice retails for $20.
I watch as Dozois slowly drinks a Mint Fizz at the bar at Elements Kitchen. He sips it for at least 25 minutes as he tells me all about the travails of enlightening bar owners about the importance of ice. It hasn’t necessarily been easy, especially in this economy, to get people to change from a familiar product to something as novel and seemingly exotic as his ice. So he spreads the word at occasional “The Art of Ice” evenings at restaurants around town. At the end he says, “I believe I’ve been put here for a purpose, and that is to teach people about ice, and make their cocktail drinking experience the best it can possibly be.”
I look at his glass, with the ice apparently still intact. The answer is clear.
Névé Luxury Ice is available for purchase at Bar Keeper in Silver Lake.
Call (323) 343-1507 or visit neveice.com.