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On the Rocks, A History

Ice and booze: The ultimate meet cute

America’s history with alcohol may be a major buzzkill compared to places like Paris, Ireland and Mexico — all of which have centuries of colorful drinking traditions, while we’re best known for Prohibition — but the U.S. does have one undeniably solid contribution to the history of booze: Cocktails. And that’s because Frederic Tudor, a well-to-do Bostonian with dollar signs in his eyes and a hefty dose of Yankee entrepreneurial spirit (and pigheadedness) figured out how to sell ice across the world — no matter how hot the natural environs.

It may not sound like much. Ice, after all, is merely frozen water, and Mother Nature dumps a ton of it on us every winter (especially those of us in Tudor’s native Boston). But until Tudor determined to make ice a, uh, hot commodity year ‘round, cold beer, any drink on the rocks and everything from a Negroni to a Lemon Drop were an impossibility.

Here’s how he did it — and how crazy we’ve become about the cold stuff ever since…

Tudor’s Chill

Tudor grew up rich but didn’t hold onto his fortune very well. In particular, he enjoyed the loafing life and ditched college for a career that didn’t involve any actual work. Until, that is, he ran out of cash at 22 and decided to give his life purpose (and bolster his flagging fortunes in the process) by selling ice to people who couldn’t freeze their own.

While this wasn’t the most original idea ever — the ancient Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese all collected and stored ice — Tudor was the first to offer the opportunity of cold beverages to people beyond the upper class. In fact, he would personally make the rounds to the proletariat’s summer BBQs and family get-togethers, adding ice cubes to guests’ glasses, employing the age old swindle, “The first one’s free….”

And if he couldn’t bring ice to them himself, he tried to ship it to them. His maiden voyages, however, were disasters. The first took place in 1806, when he set sail from Boston to Martinique with 130 tons of ice. Most of the cargo survived the three-week voyage, but without a way to store the ice on the French island, it melted upon landing. He took a loss of $4,000. His second wasn’t any more successful: He sent 240 tons of ice to Havana, and while some of it made it into Cuban glasses, he still didn’t make any money on the venture. Stubborn, but not stupid, Tudor began building ice houses in port towns to store his frozen goods. They were definitely the missing piece. By 1856, almost 150,000 tons of ice a year were being shipped from Boston to more than 40 different countries throughout the world, getting as far as China, Australia and Japan.

While I’m sure a fair amount of Tudor’s ice went toward preventing food from spoiling and soothing the brows of sweltering locals, at home in the States, the availability of ice cubes — along with the new coast-to-coast railway system — were revolutionizing how people got drunk.

Stone Cold Cocktails

The word cocktail as applied to alcoholic beverages first appeared in print in 1806 (perhaps not coincidentally, the very same year as Tudor’s first ice-laden voyage overseas). Such a cocktail was defined as “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water and bitters.”

That water, as any bartender today will tell you, comes from ice.

Here’s where some personal experience is germane. Namely, after a busy night at work, my arms are killing me. Sure, my feet, knees and back are killing me, too — I’ve been standing for 10 to 12 hours — but my arms hurt the most because of all the shaking and stirring required of cocktails. And believe me, all that work isn’t just for show: A cocktail requires a certain amount of dilution (25 percent to be exact, according to the industry-renowned BarSmarts education program) for it to taste right. For instance, if you’ve ever ordered a stirred cocktail, like a Negroni, and been overwhelmed with a particular flavor — it’s too bitter, it’s too sweet, it’s too something — odds are that it’s not that your bartender made it wrong (a Negroni is equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, meaning it’s really hard to fuck that up). They probably just didn’t stir it long enough.

The reverse is true for drinks that taste watered-down (or thin as we call it behind the bar): It was stirred too long, adding too much melted ice to the mixture.

Pinning down exactly what the first cocktail was — or who first crafted/popularized the recipe — is tricky business. (FWIW: Tudor did specifically peddle his early wares to barkeeps throughout New England and the South, hoping they would begin adding his cubes to spirits.) Looking at the classic definition, however, one immediately jumps to mind: The Old Fashioned.

Old Fashioneds are always, regardless of the base spirit (e.g., bourbon or gin), served on the rocks, with a couple of nice, fat, dense ice cubes. They’re intended to chill the drink but melt nice and slow (so as not to dilute the Old Fashioned any further).

Of course, a lot has changed since then…

The Freezer-to-Drink Movement

Today, a major mark of a bar’s quality is their ice program, which, hold on, isn’t as dumb as it sounds. Ice today comes in many forms, and no, not all frozen water is created equal.

On the shit side of that spectrum, take, for example, the more and faster is better ethos of the 1970s and 1980s, which gifted American drinking culture powdered drink mixes and ice machines that crank out piles of half-moon-shaped chips affectionately dubbed “shitty hotel ice” by my fellow bartenders. Much like the slow food movement is trying to compensate for the 1950s rush to prepackage and synthetically manufacture food, the bar industry is trying to get the drinking public back on board with things like fresh juices and putting time and thought into crafting a beverage.

All of which is to say that we get fucking weird when it comes to ice.

Case in point: Part of the reason my arms hurt so badly after a busy night of service is that we use Kold-Draft, an ice machine that pumps out super dense 1¼-inch cubes. These fuckers are solid and perfect for serving spirits on the rocks: the high density of cubes means they melt more slowly, diluting your drink less quickly (as with the Old Fashioned example above). It also means you have to shake the everloving shit out of cocktails built with them to get the appropriate amount of dilution.

In a standard craft cocktail bar, your bartenders will be using Kold-Draft ice for all of their shaking and stirring. But many top-notch places like Death & Co in Manhattan and The Aviary in Chicago will go so far as to crack their own Kold-Draft cubes by hand before adding them to a mixing glass or tin, increasing the surface area of ice in the drink and prompting faster dilution. As such, there are now “perfect cubes,” 1-inch cubes of ice made by hand-filling silicone ice trays and freezing them overnight, and “large rocks,” 2-inch versions of perfect cubes. Not to mention, crushed ice, pellet ice and ice spheres that are made with ludicrously expensive metal molds.

Some of the most contentious conversations I’ve had with coworkers have been over whether a drink should be served down or on the rocks:

It needs the extra dilution!

Are you insane?!?!?! More water is going to throw off the balance of the rye!

Similarly, I’ve watched groups of bartenders passionately discuss the best way to make perfectly clear ice as though they were describing an exhibit at the Met. And there’s at least one bartender in my social circle on medical leave from work (well, okay, she’s just not working right now because there’s no such thing as medical leave in the service industry) because she sliced her hand open hand-cutting a block of ice for a drink she was about to serve, something she has her own set of knives for.

Like I said: We get fucking weird about ice.

That makes us cool, right?