Many of us who appreciate the refined pleasure of a craft cocktail are familiar with the lore of housemade bitters, syrups, shrubs, and fresh juices that the renaissance of artisanal bartending has brought with it. But how often do we consider the foundation of it all? Shaken or stirred, served up or over rocks, just about every cocktail starts with ice.
Whether cube-shaped or spherical, water frozen in a mold freezes on all sides at once, trapping any air bubbles or imperfections at its center. Water frozen directionally freezes from the top surface down or the bottom up into a single block, which allows for the formation of flawless, uniform, and perfectly transparent ice crystals. The block can then be repeatedly scored with a serrated knife and broken into cubes, which can then be chiseled into any size or shape desired.
It’s called clear ice, and it’s become the transparent gold standard among the growing numbers of people who make and appreciate fine cocktails, for reasons that range from aesthetic—allowing the hues of a drink to shine—to mixological.
Expert bartenders recognize the impact of clear ice on their work. “Clear ice allows you to achieve the proper temperature and water content,” says Twin Lakes Ice founder Sean Meagher. “It’s an almost fail-safe way to produce a cocktail. Take shaking with one clear cube opposed to a tin full of wet hotel ice. You can shake that cocktail til your hands get too cold to hold the tin. You will never add too much water to that cocktail, and it will be bone cold. In an Old Fashioned, that drink will mature throughout the time it is in the glass, giving you the very best until the last sip.”
Making old-school Prohibition and pre-Prohibition-era drinks at Wm. Farmer & Sons in Hudson, bartender Meagher found himself running the in-house ice program. “At first we had all the bartenders in the basement prepping and hand cutting ice with hand saws and chisels for a couple of hours a day to supply the bar,” he says. “We soon acquired a Clinebell large block ice machine from our bar consultant, who has a clear cocktail ice company based out of Queens. That changed everything. With his guidance we were able to scale down the cutting schedule to a one-day, one-person show.”
Back in 2018, word got out that Wm. Farmer & Sons had a coveted Clinebell. “A lot of the bartenders and restaurateurs that had worked in New York City were aware of clear ice. Not being capable of supplying anyone other than Wm. Farmer and Sons, I was turning people away,” Meagher says. “Finally, after turning like the fourth bartender away, I said ‘you know what, let me try to make this work.’”
Using Clinebell technology, Meagher launched Twin Lakes Ice Co. in Hudson in 2020, just before the COVID shutdown. The business is currently moving to a warehouse in Ghent to continue scaling up. “Slow growth was the way we always wanted to approach this business, letting demand dictate timeline and pace. I now have the ability to distribute to the Hudson Valley, and up to the Capital Region,” says Meagher, who is also looking into Berkshires distribution.
It’s not the water source that makes the difference, but the process. “It’s municipal water from the City of Hudson filtered through a normal filtration system,” says Meagher. “But the main filtering is done by the slow freezing process. The block is being frozen from the bottom up—much like a lake would freeze, but in reverse. After a three-day period, it's one frozen block. All the impurities have been forced to the top; there is one thin layer of unfrozen water that I remove, and I'm left with one 300-pound clear block.” Customers can order four different shapes tailored to enhance particular cocktails and suit the glasses they’re served in—cubes short and tall are best for rocks glasses, spears enhance highballs and other drinks served “long,” and the Shaker cube aerates for a frothy head.
“Clear ice just makes any drink better,” says Matt Colvin, barkeep at Lawrence Park. “It enhances both the presentation and the quality; it’s visually beautiful, and the slower dilution (from melting) makes for a better cocktail no matter what you’ve ordered.”
Meagher, who still tends the bar at Wm Farmer & Sons, says it’s all about the best possible customer experience, which he strongly believes the public deserves. “Cocktails these days are upwards of $16, some even $20, so with that it’s kind of up to us to make sure it is the very best cocktail we can provide, to give the best value for money,” he says. “Clear ice is as important an ingredient as the spirit in the glass. Bars these days take the time to use fresh juices, housemade syrups, and local spirits. Why, then, use cloudy, wet ice?”