18 Jan Ice
By Shane Beehan
At the end of a busy shift in cocktail bars worldwide, the ingrained habits of closing duties unfold, refrigerating perishables, wiping down bottles, sweeping and mopping the floor, and burning ice. Yes, it’s almost unfathomable to consider, but many cocktail bars will pour hot water over the nights remaining ice to expedite the cleaning of the ice well. It took humankind thousands of years to come to a point where we have access to perfectly shaped, frozen water on demand, and in the blink of a bucket of hot water, it’s all gone. What we blindly take for granted today was a luxury most humans ever born never got to experience.
Many ancient civilizations had their own ways of harvesting the cold, or harvesting ice, to use for their benefits. In ancient China, historians have found ice pits dating back to the 7th century BC, where ice was harvested and stored to preserve food. In ancient Egypt, earthenware pots would be filled with water and left outside on cool nights to freeze. In North America in the 18th century, the Thirteen Colonies would harvest ice from ponds and rivers and store them in Ice Houses, a technique brought over from the United Kingdom. In Newfoundland, brave ships would face the mighty North Atlantic Ocean’s challenges to meet passing icebergs and harvest the purity of their frozen water to help preserve fish. Nearly anywhere on earth where the temperatures dropped below freezing, there have always been efforts made to procure and preserve ice; what they all have in common is that it was a fleeting luxury known only to the elite in society. It wouldn’t be until the early 19th century before ice would become a commodity and coincidentally coincide with the birth of the cocktail.
For as long as humankind has had some form of alcoholic beverage, there have been mixed drinks. In ancient Greece, it would be common to mix saltwater and wine infused with herbs or spices. The earliest forms of beer and mead would be mixed or infused with different foods to consume. In Mesopotamia, ancient poems and art depict individuals drinking a rudimentary form of beer porridge through straws to filter out bread and spices. Many religious orders perfected wine and beer making in medieval times, with monks experimenting with different infusions and botanicals. With the rise of distillation came even more advanced techniques and experimentations. In 17th century colonial America, taverns began to see the rise of popular drinks such as the sling, cobbler and sangaree. The flip, a mixture of beer, rum, sugar and egg heated and frothed by burning iron, was a specialty coast to coast. What all these cultures had in common is that they celebrated or mourned with a drink, and depending on the event, it would be flavoured or mixed for the occasion. Served communally or individually, the drink itself would most often be served warm or hot. It was the fateful year of 1806 that cocktail culture began to heat up and cool down at the same time.
The cocktail’s birthday is officially celebrated on May 13th, honouring that day in 1806 when the first definition appeared in The Balance and Columbian Repository, a newspaper out of Hudson, New York. The author defined it as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters,” Interestingly ice wasn’t mentioned. At that moment in history, it had yet to become part of cocktail lore. In a wonderful coincidence, the natural ice trade and the cocktail share the same birth year. Just a few months before the cocktail would be defined, Frederic “Ice King” Tudor would send a ship with thousands of pounds of ice to the Caribbean and thus kicking off his ice empire. While his ice arrived in Martinique, it wasn’t the success he had hoped; his early efforts in the ice trade melted as quickly as his frozen blocks in the tropical sun. For his business to survive and turn ice into a commodity, he needed some inspiration and what better way to get inspired than turn to a drink.
Forged with an entrepreneurial spirit as cold as his ice blocks, Tudor overcame many challenges in the early days of his natural ice trade. While essentially ice was free, it took effort to procure it and money to ship and preserve it. In the early days of ice sales, it was used first and foremost to preserve food and medicine, but it was strange to consider using ice to cool drinks. People were wary of paying for it, and because his earliest markets in the Caribbean lacked the ability to store the ice properly, his profits literally melted away. Tudor found himself in trouble, losing business partners, going bankrupt and serving time in debtor’s prison.
It was also dangerous, life-threatening work; many humans and animals died hauling hundreds of pounds of ice from frozen ponds and rivers. With numb hands, cold feet, and the fear of being crushed or drowning, it was painstaking work for a product that left many people incredulous as to how to use it.
Tudor, betting on himself, launched an enterprise in Havana building an icehouse that could hold thousands of pounds of ice. He worked on better insulation methods, using sawdust to protect ice on voyages, and opened new markets for himself in the American South. By 1825 one of Tudor’s partners developed a way to score and cut ice with a horse-drawn plow, and his efficiency would allow for quicker and larger ice harvests. He travelled door to door, state to state, climate to climate, to show how ice could turn luxury into common, ordinary events. He taught restaurant owners how to make ice cream and developed ways for businesses to store their newfound ingredients properly, and he showed hospitals how it could extend the life of some medicines. To convince tavern owners and the general public that ice improved the drinking experience, he would instruct bartenders to serve the same drink twice, one traditional serve, one with ice, and let the customers decide which they enjoyed most. It was Tudor’s thought that once someone in the glaring heat of the south tried an ice-cold drink, they wouldn’t ever be able to return to a warm glass, and he was right. He popularized one of America’s first and greatest cocktails, the smash, taking basic cocktail ingredients at the time and transforming the experience through some smashed ice. By the 1830s, the Mint Julep transcended simple cocktail culture, becoming a staple of the American South, a culinary drinking experience unmatched anywhere in the world, thanks of course to a wooden mallet and some ice.
Tudor once said, “Let those laugh who win.” Once a business that was mocked, Tudor became one of the United States’ early entrepreneurial millionaires. His foresight and fortitude took a simple idea from Boston Harbor all around the world. He transformed the landscape of American cocktails, through ingenuity and an ice-cold will, what once was a luxury for the most elite in society soon became a common ordinary experience in taverns across the country. Tudor died in 1864, but he lived long enough to see the Golden Age of cocktails’ early years. Two years before Tudor’s death, “Professor” Jerry Thomas published The Bartenders Guide, a volume of recipes and procedures once-secret only to trained bar professionals was now available for the public and the culture of cocktails and bartending took off exponentially. Many early and original recipes called for the use of ice, an influence of Tudor and his grand efforts to sell his frozen water.
It’s a certain mark of genius to take something naturally occurring in nature and transform it into something else entirely. Sure, it’s no stroke of genius to see frozen water and ponder its uses, but to turn a simple idea into an enterprise that would change history and culture as we know it, well, that was one idea as solid as the center of an ancient Iceberg. So the next time you find yourself closing your bar, or scraping the back of your freezer for some ice, keep in mind the important role ice plays not only in the enjoyment of your drink but the livelihood of your profession. After all, we are one idea, one simple ice cube away, from either melting into obscurity or preserving a strength of character that can profoundly change our own lives as we see fit.
1.50 oz | 45 mL Fino Sherry
0.50 oz | 15 mL Mezcal (Tobala)
1.00 oz | 30 mL white grapefruit juice
0.50 oz | 15 mL agave syrup
Half a lime, quartered and muddled
2 dashes Bittered Sling Clingstone Peach Bitters
1 dash saline solution
Muddle the lime, agave syrup and bitters in the bottom of a shaker tin. Add all other ingredients to the shaker, add ice and shake. Dump into a rocks glass and top with crushed ice. Garnish with a lime wheel and enjoy.