Age of Ice

The Glaciers May Be Melting—But Status Ice Is Trending

Two new books about ice—yes, frozen water—coincided with a slew of ice trends—again, we’re talking about water that freezes—making 2023 maybe the best year in ice—ice!—since the invention of the Frigidaire.
The Glaciers May Be Melting—But Status Ice Is Trending
Illustration by Pamela Wang. Photos from Getty Images.

In 2018, Dr. Amy Brady noticed something so normal it was strange. During that summer’s brutal heat wave, the journalist and historian drove to a convenience store in the midwest to get a cup of ice, implicitly knowing that she could. Brady realized she had a faith so strong that it was a fact: She could walk into almost any other convenience store (or home) in America and there would be ice there too. She knew it as anyone knows that if they are so blessed to wake up tomorrow morning, they’ll be breathing air. This is, of course, a relatively recent development in the whole scheme of human civilization, but like all such luxuries (the internet, air travel, constitutional democracy), one that the species tended to take for granted about five minutes after its introduction. Over 300 or so pages of her book, Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks, a Cool History of a Hot Commodity, published this month, Brady thoroughly answers the question, how did we get to this place of total ice abundance in America?

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Turns out it is a very Summer 2023 question to be answering. Ice is suddenly everywhere thanks to a surge in frozen-water-related trends. It is on Instagram and YouTube and TikTok, where restocking videos had their moment; the craftier among us are freezing various ingredients into summertime treats. Ice is in the news. Did you hear Starbucks is switching the kind of ice it uses in its iced beverages? Are you mad? Ice is in the luxury-appliance aisle. (I am currently raising the funds to purchase one of these.) And it’s in another tidy book, published within weeks of Brady’s own, by cocktail and spirits writer Camper English. The Ice Book: Cool Cubes, Clear Spheres, and Other Chill Cocktail Crafts teaches the ice-enthralled how to make perfectly clear cocktail ice at home in a freezer of one’s own. (It’s not an intuitive process, but easy once you know how.)

In other words, we are in a moment of status ice, in which we’ve never had more opportunity to spend unnecessary time, money, or space—or all three—on acquiring frozen water. It makes a certain amount of sense in our current American moment of orange atmospheres and climate apocalypse. Besides, as Brady said when we recently spoke, ice has always been “this thing to strive for. It’s like it’s imbued with this sense of aspiration. There aren’t many other places in the world that have that upward class mobility—or at least that illusion of upward class mobility—and so many people are always striving to reach the next social class, which is what ice represents.”

Ice, Brady told me, has been sold as a luxury product “every time there’s a disruption in the ice trade or a new way of thinking about ice”; it’s a story as American as apple pie (a phrase that has its roots in the ice trade, I learned from Brady’s book). As Brady writes, when a man from a wealthy Boston family named Frederic Tudor decided in the early 1800s to bring ice from up north to the warmest climes, from Martinique to Cuba to New Orleans, he marketed it as a luxury while teaching his customers what it was and how to use it. Proponents of the ice machine, invented at the turn of the last century, sold man-made ice as the purest, most luxurious version of the thing; it was made from distilled water, they argued, and not potentially sewage-y river water riddled with the manure of the horses employed to harvest it. Natural ice fought back, claiming for a brief moment that it had the good, fancy, luxurious ice because it was “natural.” Now, cocktail ice is the thing, specially made for clarity and size.

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Each of these subsequent ice eras have led, in their own winding ways, to this golden age of ice. We can have ice frozen into cubes, spheres, or tiny little hearts. We can have it crushed, chipped, shaved, or molded into cylinders with the center hollowed out. We can have it the old-fashioned way, harvested from lakes and distributed in blocks, if we live in the right part of the country and are feeling a bit nostalgic. We can have it crunchy, or rather, in a laminated ice that goes by the name pellet, pebble, or nugget, depending on what you heard first. We can get that kind at a fast food restaurant, or with a bigger buy-in, on our counters at home. We can make it clear—as crystalline and as crisp as a prehistoric lake—or we can buy such a thing for a reasonable price at a store. That is, we can elevate our drinks at any baptism, wedding, or wake with premium blocks of ice, cut for our convenience, with optimized melt speeds and outstanding clarity.

When I spoke to English, who is one of the biggest names in the cocktail world, about the current ice discourse, he said that it surprised even him. It had been difficult to place his book when he was shopping it in recent years. An unspecified number of publishers passed before Red Lightning Books jumped. The book sold out its first run ahead of its May publish date.

“It was nice of Starbucks to change its ice,” he joked.

English explained what was going on in the realm of cocktails to bring us to this moment of clarity. “Part of it is pandemic-related, for sure,” English said. “People were making cocktails at home for the first time.”

Fans of bars became fans of bar carts. Sales of bar supplies like muddlers, strainers, graters, and cube trays skyrocketed at places like Cocktail Kingdom. Bartenders shared their techniques over Zoom classes to bridge the gap financially.

“And you can’t show off your drink on Instagram with a cloudy cube,” he added. “It’s like, ugh.”

For the record, English’s book is instructional. In 2009, he discovered a method for freezing ice at home so it would be clear and beautiful, like the ice you’d get in your drink at the nicest bar in town. It’s called directional freezing because what matters is the direction that the ice freezes—from top to bottom, as ice freezes in a pond. The Ice Book instructs on how to pull it off, as well as how to freeze fun stuff inside of the blocks and make unique shapes free of cloudiness.

The needle really moved on ice awareness when freezer-restocking videos began their march across social media, inspiring some to crave the luxury of a second freezer, one dedicated merely to ice, according to English. The biggest, quickest jump he’s seen in ice interest is that people, like Brady, are noticing ice and possibly even what kind they’re getting. While some look for the correct “cronch,” and others are after incredible clarity and shape, the general populace has begun forming opinions on the best ice (i.e., “the good ice”) and the right applications for it. Even if you don’t count yourself as an ice snob, you might find yourself gravitating toward a particular establishment that serves a particular variety. In spite of yourself, you have some thoughts on ice.

If you were to plot the most recent rise of ice trends, English says big ice came first. It’s something that has long mattered to professionals for reasons having to do with the speed of melt in a drink. With the great whiskey stones and large-silicon-tray gifting sweep of about 2015, it became not only possible but extremely cheap and easy to have large ice at home. 

English says the desire for clear ice came second, and was primarily, once again, an interest for bartenders. Wintersmiths funded its Phantom ice maker, a clear ice maker that employs English’s directional freezing method and ice molds, with a Kickstarter in 2017. They created it to combat the sometimes astronomical price of ice makers in bars. Generally, ice clarity is an aesthetic concern. At first, for the most part it was made by hand.

“If you think about it, every clear two-inch cube you’ve ever had at any bar in your entire life was made by a person,” English said. “It didn’t drop out of a machine at all. And I feel like nobody has an awareness of that. I’m surprised people aren’t putting, like, ‘House Ice’ signs above the bar.”

In more recent years, there are a number of businesses that have provided large and clear ice to bars. Hundredweight Big Ice in New York City (Eater recently published a video featuring Hundredweight and its owner, Richard Boccato, another cocktail legend and bar owner who vertically integrated ice manufacturing). Pure & Clear peddles ice in Minnesota. Névé Ice in Los Angeles and Blind Tiger Ice in San Francisco.

Some companies will send clear, clean ice directly to customers for the sometimes exorbitant cost of shipping. And increasingly, that same service is available at home. The Forge Clear Ice System makes two perfectly clear “ice gems” in five to seven hours. (Great for people who own boats, a person connected to the brand once told English.) There are some LG refrigerators with “Craft Ice” capability for a few thousand dollars. A Craft Ice system makes between three and six ice cubes a day, and they’re not always absolutely perfect (the technology, most cocktail professionals agree, is so far mid, says English. We may be in the golden age of ice generally, but we are not yet in the golden age of homemade clear ice, where quality and scale combine into one neat, compact freezer). There’s also a growing business in retail ice, aspirational cocktail ice stocked in convenience and grocery stores. On the retail front, there’s Mixology Ice in Miami and Quari Ice in Chicago and Lux Ice in Philadelphia.

English compares the new ice industry to sourdough, in that he sees a world of extensive choice ahead of us. “There are some people who bake their own sourdough bread,” he said. “Some people will go buy bread in the store and you can still get really, really good, homemade bread at the store. I do think there’ll be an increased awareness that you are able to buy this ice in stores.” (Here is one young content creator increasing his awareness in real time.)

Having plumbed the history of the ice industry and followed it through to this very moment, Brady finds it ironic, but unsurprising, that ice is becoming a trend on social media and in retailers as we become more painfully aware of glacier melt. Ice as luxury takes on a slightly different meaning against the more dire backdrop.

“We’re all seeking ways to get cool,” Brady said, “and to make it seem charming and luxurious instead of terrifying. It’ll feel like a party instead of, you know, self-preservation.”

More people the globe over are discovering the profound relief of having lots and lots of ice at one’s immediate disposal, especially when the heat waves hit earlier and last longer than ever. It’s long been a cliché that Americans have held dear: If you go overseas and ask for ice in your drink (and you always have to ask), you’ll get a cube or two. But it’s no longer always like that. Europe may not have the same ice infrastructure that America has been building since roughly 1800, but the substance is undeniably a product whose use and usefulness has only grown as the planet warms.

“I am not surprised at all to see more populations taking to this stuff,” Brady said. “You know, cold is an antidote to rot.”