It was bound to happen. And not just because it's already been happening overseas, but because of a domino-like logic. The cocktail revolution that's echoed around the (booze conscious) world over the past decade or so has seen every other aspect of cocktail culture move towards a more artisanal, historically aware, geek-friendly way of doing things. Recipes, ingredients, skills, glassware and equipment have all been swept along on a waistcoated, moustachioed, tattooed tide of nostalgia and authenticity. And now, inevitably, it's time for ice to step up for its makeover.
Some bars in Australia that truly care about cocktails have been paying attention to their ice for some time. It makes sense that if you're going to be all definitive about using mescal sourced from a handmade clay still in a part of Oaxaca accessible only by donkey, you may want to think about the kind of ice that's going to cool and – more importantly – dilute your mescal. There are already bartenders producing larger and spherical blocks of ice using purified and filtered water or carving and shaving ice from larger blocks as part of the cocktail-making process.
But a corner is being turned in the local ice situation with the imminent arrival of Navy Strength Ice Co, Australia's first boutique hand-cut ice company. Navy Strength is brought to you by Michael Madrusan, the man behind one of the country's (and the world's, according to some lists) best cocktail bars, the Everleigh in Fitzroy.
Madrusan, who cut his cocktail teeth at New York's famed Milk & Honey cocktail bar, the place some consider the birthplace of the artisanal ice trend, recently purchased a $25 000 ice-making behemoth from Clinebell, the Steinway of ice-making equipment companies. This is a machine that takes three days to produce a 150 kilogram block of perfectly clear ice from ultra-filtrated water. Customers will be able to have the blocks cut to order or, for those into such things, left whole so that you can have a go at carving your own ice swan table centrepiece.
"Ice is a vital ingredient that has somehow, until now, been largely overlooked," says Madrusan. "But ultimately I don't want people thinking this is a pretentious method. It's about giving people the best drink I can."
So how is it that ice can so influence the quality of a drink?
For starters, ice is very good at absorbing the smell of things that are sitting nearby in the freezer and so if you don't want your whisky ruined by a slightly fishy odour its probably a good idea to keep your ice fresh and separated from the potentially stinky stuff.
Then there's the size of your ice cubes. A bigger ice cube (you can get silicon moulds for both large cubes and spherical ice blocks) will melt more slowly and so dilute your drink less. But, given that there is less surface area in contact with the liquid in your glass, as compared to a lot of smaller cubes, the larger ice cube will not chill your drink as intensely.
So bigger ice cubes are good for people who like ice with their straight spirits (most commonly the whiskey drinkers) and for cocktails like an Old Fashioned that are all about the punch and power of good undiluted (or minimally diluted) spirit.
But for drinks that are at their best super chilled, like a Martini or a classic Margarita, stirring or shaking quickly with ice is really the only way to go.
And this is where quality ice really steps in. Perfectly clear, dense ice, of the type you get out of a Clinebell, not only looks handsome, but it melts more slowly than the cloudy, mass produced stuff that's full of oxygen and potential impurities. Those in Melbourne will soon be able to order this type of ice from Navy Strength, but there are ways of maximising the quality of your ice cubes when making them in a domestic freezer.
First step is to clean the freezer so you don't get the unwanted odours and make sure any food nearby is super sealed. Then pour warm, filtered water into your moulds and turn your freezer to the warmest possible setting. This allows for any air bubbles to head to the surface and for the ice to freeze slowly, making for a clearer, denser ice.
Artisanal ice may seem, to some, like another step on the road to the end of civilisation but for those who feel an unsullied Martini to be right up there with humankind's greatest achievements, it looks like just the ticket.