A decade ago, bartenders began showcasing Australia's emerging artisan spirit brands to show they were serious about cocktails. Five years later, it became vital to use the best new mixers and tonics. Now it's all about fancy ice.
"Ice is the last frontier of premium cocktail-making," says former bartender Damien Liot, who founded Alexandria-based Bare Bones Ice Co in 2017.
"We have never had such demand for our bespoke products. At the moment, we're just trying to keep up with the surge in orders since hospitality started back up after lockdown."
Liot's ice is a long way from the cloudy tap-water cubes found in most home freezers. Bare Bones ice is made using a process called directional freezing, whereby water freezes very slowly in one direction.
It takes four days to properly freeze a 150 kilogram block, and even longer in Sydney's summer heat
"Freezing water from the bottom up pushes all the impurities, minerals and air bubbles to the top," says Liot. "We then remove the top of the ice at the end of freezing and what's left underneath is crystal clear like glass."
James Irvine is the creative director of drinks at Four Pillars Gin Laboratory in Surry Hills. He says the benefits of fancy ice go beyond its cosmetic value.
"It looks great, absolutely, but Bare Bones ice will also dilute a drink much slower than a regular cube, meaning better flavour concentration and balance of alcohol in the glass."
Liot produces more than one tonne of ice a week, about 80 per cent of which is cut into flawless blocks ready for Old Fashioneds, negronis and myriad house cocktails.
A list of more than 100 Bare Bones clients includes Bondi's Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, CBD mezcal bar Cantina OK!, and Neil Perry's Margaret restaurant in Double Bay.
However, a fancy ice war is beginning to brew in Sydney with Blox Premium Cocktail Ice launching in June.
Offering crystal clear ice similar to Bare Bones, Blox sells to more than 20 bars including Maybe Sammy and Hickson House (both in The Rocks), but company founder Andy Harris says home cocktail-makers are his primary focus.
"We love what Bare Bones does, but the market for premium ice is growing in a big way, so we started Blox to meet that demand," says Harris, also a former bartender.
"The business came about after the first COVID lockdown when at-home cocktails really took off. People now want to make amazing drinks at home with the same type of ice used by their favourite bars."
Harris has installed a branded slim-line freezer at Maybe Sammy to sell his slow-melt ice block six-packs, also available to order online from the Blox website at $10 a box.
"Some people have remarked 'oh, that's quite expensive', but it takes a lot of time, focus and specialised equipment to cut the ice by hand," he says. "We're not just throwing cubes in a Bells bag."
Meanwhile, Liot is ramping up Bare Bones retail presence too.
$14 "Old Fashioned Block" eight-packs are available at Dan Murphy's Alexandria store, P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants in Newtown, Old Mate's Place in the CBD and Four Pillars Gin Laboratory.
Bare Bones is also expanding to meet demand in 2022 with a new factory, upgraded equipment and more refrigerated vans for delivery. "This will be the summer where Bare Bones comes into its own," says Liot.
Making crystal-clear ice at home
Cloudy cubes ruining an otherwise perfect home cocktail? If fancy factory-made ice isn't easily accessible, James Irvine says its possible to make clear ice in a home freezer – all you need is a tiny Esky.
"Directional freezing sounds way more scientific and complicated than it actually is," says Irvine. "Just get a one or two-litre lunchbox Esky – or just a Kmart brand model will do – fill it three-quarters full with water and pop it in the freezer with the lid off. What will happen is the water won't actually freeze completely solid – there will be ice, with a layer of water above it."
The ice freezes crystal clear because the Esky case contains glycol gel, he says. "Glycol keeps the water rapidly circulating, meaning none of the impurities will set into ice. You can then use a bread knife to carefully cut the block into different shapes."