The Ice Age 2014

As New Orleans freezes over our Sunday Comics author reflects upon his personal, ambiguous relationship with ice

Jim Gabour
2 February 2014

It is cold here.  In New Orleans.  This is the result of the 2014 winter’s ridiculously destructive and endlessly returning Polar Vortex.  My tropical garden looks like the set for a nuclear holocaust film.  Guava tree, papayas, thirty-foot tall avocado, bananas, elephant ears, philodendrons, ginger – all look like Dali meltdowns, and most already have the consistency of melting celery jello.  Not an appetizing sight.  I feel a serious need to call the Nobel-polishing Al Gore and his global warming minions.  Maybe I should contact his new warm-weather patrons at Al Jazeera.  Al Gore.  Al Jazeera.

“Als, both of you, listen up:  it is goddamned COLD outside!”  And the weather authorities tell me that yet another cold wave is coming through our once-warm paradise tonight.

Normally, when speaking from my vantage point in the subtropics in addressing people from other, regularly-chilled regions, I use the same old chestnut to illustrate my disdain for such weather:  “Ice, kind sirs, is for cocktails.”  Oddly enough, America is one of the few places on earth where that preference holds true.

So this morning I get an e from my old bud Al (yes, another) over in Austin, Texas, which you would also wrongly think to be always warm.  This Al is sending me “the stupidest article I have ever seen” from the local “Austin Statesman”.  Now Al has documented some pretty blatant Texan stupidity in his decades of daily observances of life over there, but I am really surprised when this bit of prurient journalism turns out to be about nothing more than ice cubes.  Not the rapper, mind you, but the physical objects.  “Austin’s Ice Age:  Custom-made cubes, chips and blocks make a big splash at serious cocktail bars” is the article’s title. 

The horrible part is that I not only have known about this phenomenon for a number of years, and I have a serious chip (ice) on my shoulder for the subject.  Sadly, this is actually important to me both as part of recent memory, and in a much larger philosophical sense.

Thus, my own bit of cold-air venting.

Being a warm-weather person, I have had ice problems for years, falling through frozen  paddies in Korea into storage pools of slightly warmer fertilizer dung, sliding down slick mountainsides in Nepal while seeing nary a yeti, and slipping into gutters from the glazed sidewalks of midwinter Manhattan, usually in front of well-clad and haughty para-executives.  I have painfully obtained a world tour’s experience of cold weather bruises and winter humiliation.  Compiled a scrapbook of my non-start relationship with ice.

Even in the deep tropics I have had trouble with this common refrigerant.  In the heat of Mexico repeatedly realizing that I have once again ordered a beverage that will be served over ice, and knowing that it is highly probable that it has been made directly and cheaply out of unfiltered tap water, I will often do the Mayan ice chant:  “Pura, pura, pura…”.  I say the word hoping for purified water over and over and over, tapping the glass to accompany what I hope will be a successful ritual chant to dissuade imminent digestive rumbles.  Hoping that whatever alcohol is in the container will overcome the microbes that issue from non-sanitary faucets.

But I finally hit the wall on cocktail ice about six years ago, shooting a documentary/concert in Japan, when after a very long day’s work, I just made last call at my hotel’s over-fancy bar – think Sophia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” – and ordered a bourbon on the rocks from a highly-polished bottle that was displayed behind the bar.  Jack Daniels, not my favorite.  But any port in a beverage storm, I say.

The result:  about half an ounce of liquor poured into a crystal highball glass, with most delicate finesse, over a three-inch-in-diameter ice sphere.  And a $27 bar charge.

It turns out that, like the US, Japan has also become enamored of ice, and as usual in their culture, was taking it to the limits of use.

The booze didn’t really accumulate in the bottom of the glass, it just coated the sphere with an amber glow.  So here was this mortally exhausted American in jeans, sitting amidst designer-clothed Japanese businessmen and their ladies of the evening, licking an ice ball in hopes of consuming enough liquor to put a dent in his physical and emotional stress.  I did not get a sufficient dosage.  I know I said to myself “the hell with the cost, I need to wind down and sleep,” but what followed once again showed my pitifully weak character.  I ordered another drink and asked the bartender, as best I could, to lean on the bourbon.  He did not offer new ice – it seems you receive your frigid date once for the entire evening -- and again meted out what might have now been raised to ¾ of an ounce.  And consequently charged me seven dollars more, $34.  

It was a long, and expensive, night.

Interestingly enough, the next evening when I inquired at the club where I was shooting, the very amenable Blue Note Osaka, about the frozen balls, I was immediately brought glasses with ice spheres and my favorite Kentucky beverage.  For free.  But I have continued to wonder how they made those things.  Al’s Austin newspaper story, and the fact that the practice is trendily moving about the newly hip American craft cocktail scene, has caused me to investigate. 

Why do they do it?  I wondered if there was any practical reason why the Japanese used those big balls in drinks, like whether the drinks would stay colder.  I found a great – and long – article by a serious gentleman named Kevin Liu of Science Fair who basically said either way goes.  Condensed into a short read here:

In a glass with small ice, the extra surface area of the ice would lead to very fast chilling and dilution. The drink would quickly drop down to around 0°C or just below and stay in that rough temperature range until you finished your drink.

In a glass with a big sphere of ice, chilling and dilution would occur more slowly because spheres have the smallest ratio of surface area to mass. . .  the ice would also melt a bit and probably float, which means the bottom of the drink would probably be closer to 4°C* because water is densest at that temperature and the sphere would not be able to chill fast enough to generate the convection necessary to circulate the drink…

Now that we know the conditions under which big ice does melt more slowly, let's look at a situation where the opposite is true.


What happens when you add equal masses of small rectangular vs. big spherical ice to an Old-Fashioned that has been chilled down to 0°C?


In both cases, when you add the ice, the temperature gradient between ice and surrounding pre-chilled cocktail would essentially be zero, so relatively little initial melting would take place. As you drank the two cocktails, the ice in each would melt as heat would be lost to the surrounding environment. Whether or not the large ice melted more slowly would depend on insulation, air temperature, and volume of cocktail to ice, but in most situations, the sphere would likely be able to keep up with heat loss, so the two cocktails would chill and dilute at almost the same rate . Then . . . the large ice gets exposed to the air. . . cooling the atmosphere instead of your drink and you get additional dilution with no added chilling. It can be easier for small ice to rearrange and stay submerged in a drink as you sip it. 

Ok.  Do the results really matter?  Maybe the whole point is putting a natural substance into an unnatural form.   And it turns out that there are lots of ways to get ice into that shape.

I think my favorite, and most oblique method, is a Japanese Ice Maker, brought to you by "Japan Trend Shop -- Tokyo's Gadget & Lifestyle Select Shop".  You put cubes of ice into the small press and it heats and rotates the cubes until they form a perfect sphere.  I also found a gizmodo.com  video  on making clear ice, including using this press to produce a frozen ball at the very end of the film.  It  takes 90 seconds to two minutes to make a ball in any size from 30 to 80mm:

“Japanese bartenders have long been ahead of the ice curve, and while many of them are known to hand-carve individual ice spheres for their cocktails, this anodized aluminum mold does the work for you, shaping perfect 1-inch diameter spheres from larger cubes. A splurge for sure, but it definitely beats the cost of a flight to Asia. $200 includes both the sphere mold and two large cube trays.” 

With shipping and tax, $294.  Seriously expensive little knickknack just to get a nicely melting party favor.  But there are other ways.  One source discusses the bartender actually carving a perfect ball from a block of ice at the time of your drink order.  And then goes on to show that it can be done in only four minutes.

Needless to say much cheaper than that expensive aluminum heated ball-melter, though only if you consider the bartender’s time as a write-off.

In Japan’s Tsukiji fish market, much of the material to be melted or copped into tiny balls starts in much larger form.

And as a training device for future bartenders, National Geographic’s website now offers Ninja Ice Chop.  There has even been some imaginative speculation that the regimen of chopping ice has made or broken prominent conservatively cold-weather Republican politicians.  I can only assume this was for the Iced Tea Party.

However, another far easier, and again cheaper, option is to simply purchase a plastic ice ball mold.   They are odd creatures, and must be used one at a time, but they work. 

There is a site dubbed Cocktail Kingdom that recommends specific devices, other molds for making the chilled sphere.

And lastly the site admits that you can just use balloons to get the beginnings of a good curved shape and then refine that down to a more regular ball with hot water.

* * *

As a sidebar here – assuming that this entire rant is not a sidebar -- it should be noted that beyond spheres, there are four basic types of ice that fall into glasses, most available since the late nineteenth century:  cubes, cracked, shaved and blocked. 

Cubes are used as is in almost every sort of drink, but using a canvas sack or a clean bar towel, cubes can also be pounded into cracked or crushed pieces.

Cracked  ice melts faster and adds more water to drinks. Usually the bagged “party ice” you bring home from the corner store is cracked.

Shaved ice is what you typically find in fountain soda machines.  In New Orleans in the summer shaving ice is the favorite method of making “snow cones”, the cold stuff thinly shaved into a paper cone and topped with any of hundreds of flavors, including alcoholic varieties.  Which reminds me that ice revolutionized the American South like the Colt 45 did the West.

Block ice has been used as a standard starting point for bartenders for centuries, using various ice tools to create smaller pieces and shavings.  It requires labor and for the most part has fallen by the wayside in 2014.  Except for the posh urban cocktailery where there is a wish to charge as exorbitantly for the ice as for the liquor that surrounds it.

* * *

Again, all this discussion is just peripheral to my own fascination with a substance that covers so much of this planet.  Water, in all its forms, is a metaphor as much as a chemical. 

Its frozen state is often credited with a life of its own.  Say, while ice is ironically trapping a boat load of rich “adventure tourists” in Antarctica, and causing four nations to struggle to extract the unworried humans from its grip.  The tourists came away from the experience smiling.  The crew was left with the boat and its surrounding fields of ice.

Freezing water is a curious thing, in any case.  Watching it freeze is interesting but much akin in entertainment value to watching grass grow.  Until a base of ice is in place, making more ice is a very very slow process.  But with the web, people find a way to make the ever-so-tedious less so.  Here is ten hours of water freezing in a glass, time-lapsed into 2.5 minutes. 

And even those reduced 150 seconds made me wonder why I really sat through a viewing of the everyday procedure.  Same as almost everything that gets watched on the web, I guess – we watch because it is there.  Frozen in place.

But after experiencing that singular staged freeze, I am forced to think back to the root of the matter, to the water initially in the glass.  Completely necessary to life on this planet in its liquid state, and yet often deadly in both its solid and gaseous states.  Water decides what it wants to be completely by paying attention to the variations in the temperature that surrounds it, and can nurture or kill the life it supports. 

This phenomenon is a direct antecedent to what is happening in Winter 2014 in Washington DC, with a city and a government locked into rotating freezes and meltdowns.  This is a place where the metaphoric and literal ice spheres can now be found alive and well in every up-to-the-minute bar in the swank Georgetown area frequented by politicians and their kin. 

Interestingly, Al, I notice that there is also a Georgetown in Austin, Texas.

None of which explains why I just went on for half an hour about a personal, ambiguous relationship with ice.  And why I only enjoy it in extremely controlled situations.

Except that when I read a newspaper or a website, my feet get cold.

Now, to wrap the pipes.

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