Order a drink at an upscale bar lately and you're likely to see a cold, new trend in your glass -- luxury ice. These massive cubes or spheres (and sometimes hand-crafted shapes) aren't for mere visual impact. Ice crafted with proper care melts slower, chills more efficiently, and helps beverages taste their best for longer.
With a few advanced appliances, you too can create premium ice effortlessly right at home. But you'll have to pay a hefty wad of cash up front. Fortunately, if you're truly dedicated to ice that's nice, you can produce opulent results on the cheap by using some everyday tools and a little elbow grease.
Why you want this ice
Before we made our ice in trays or took it from our refrigerator dispensers, it came in the form of natural ice blocks. Harvested from lakes and streams in frozen climates and hand cut into blocks, ice was delivered like the milkman left your milk.
While this clear, rock-solid ice was brilliantly pure, it was not without its drawbacks. The blocks were heavy and unwieldy, and in an age before electricity, there was no way to keep them frozen forever.
Modern freezers and ice machines fixed those problems, but convenience quickly trumped quality. Our appliances freeze water from the outside in. This traps any air inside the water and locks it as final ice cubes are formed. The result is cloudy, white ice. Unfortunately, white ice is ruining your drinks.
Hope Clarke is an experienced bartender and the former head of beverage ice production at The Aviary restaurant in Chicago which garnered a nationwide James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program in 2013. She has since become obsessed with ice perfection and professionally advises posh bars, restaurants and food companies yearning to upgrade their chilled beverage game.
Clarke bemoans the pervasive use of white ice, calling the 30 years between 1970 and 2000 the dark ages for ice. (Frigidaire debuted the first in-door fridge ice maker in 1965.) And she doesn't pull any punches when describing why she finds these common cubes so unappetizing.
"White ice is very oxygenated, filled with lots of air bubbles," she says. "As a result, it has an unstable structure which melts quickly and unevenly. If I was spending good money on spirits, I'd want to taste it instead of a drink that melts out into a diluted slosh in just five minutes."
But even when you're not ponying up for premium bourbon, she feels white ice is no friend of soft drinks either.
"Since its surfaces are rough and porous, they tend to pull too many CO2 bubbles out of fizzy liquids, making them taste flat," she says. "Clear ice, on the other hand, not only looks pretty, it's rock solid, takes a while to melt and is free of flavor-changing impurities."
Slick ice from shiny machines
You don't have to frequent swanky bars and restaurants to get fancy ice in your glass. If your home bar budget is generous, you can use a number of premium appliances to create gourmet ice in large party-size quantities right from the comfort of your kitchen. For example, the Scotsman Brilliance Gourmet Cuber (model SCC50) is designed to make crystal-clear ice pellets in batches of up to 65 pounds a day.
A similar product, the Clear Ice Machine, built by True Manufacturing, touts a daily production capacity of 70 pounds. It also has a color-changing LED light system to illuminate its interior storage bay which holds a maximum of 28 pounds of clear ice pellets.
The downside to both the Scotsman and True appliances is that they're a hefty 15 inches wide, so they're meant to sit under kitchen or bar counters, and both should be installed by a qualified dealer. What's more, while neither company discloses exact pricing, it's not unreasonable to expect to shell out upward of $2,000 for one of these gizmos.
Great ice by hand
As that will be out of range for most of us, there's a more economical option which involves a bit more work. You don't have to cut ice from a frozen lake up north; instead, you create this freezing lake effect inside your fridge in a process known as directional freezing.
All that's required, besides water and a freezer, is an insulated container of some kind. (A small plastic cooler, ice bucket or steel beer koozie will do.) Start by filling the container with water, and place it in your freezer without its cover.
After about 12 hours or so, water in the top portion of the vessel will freeze first since it's exposed to cold air. And as those top ice crystals form, they push air bubbles and impurities downwards, producing the dreaded white ice. Here's where you'll need some muscle.
After the top portion freezes (or the entire contents of the vessel solidify), remove the ice mass, place it on a towel-covered counter and chisel away the unwanted sections. I found a serrated bread knife and rubber-handled screwdriver (serving as a rubber mallet) got the job done.
I also used the power of directional freezing to make close to a dozen crystal-clear ice balls. Filling two silicone sphere ice molds ($8) with water then inverting them over a full ice bucket (suspended by a pair of flat kitchen faucet gaskets) did the trick. My test ice spheres still had a few bubbles trapped inside their centers, but they were far from white.
Nicer ice is for everyone
Startup company Wintersmiths sells clear ice kits that function in a similar way (inside your freezer) and promise better results. I admit I am tempted, but with an asking price range of $85 to $120, my low-budget tinkering makes more financial sense.
But no matter which method you personally choose to obtain a more luxurious ice experience at home, I promise that your drinks will taste better. Because compared with pristine dense ice, weak fridge cubes can't hold water.
This story appears in the fall 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here