Photos: Making Craft Ice With Mike Ryan

October 31, 2013
by Sarah Freeman

Let's talk about ice - cut, clarity and consistency. Like diamonds, these gems of the beverage industry can be things of beauty. They might not last forever, but in the hands of ice expert Mike Ryan, they can redefine the drinking experience. Along with partners Rosanna Lloyd and Nicole Heigh, Ryan recently launched a new company called Just Ice Inc. They're cranking out cool cubes of perfectly translucent, crystal clear oversized ice that is perfect for shaken and stirred cocktails.

The start-up operates out of a West Side warehouse known as the Fortress of Solitude, and was born out of necessity. With increasingly more cocktail bars in the city, the demand for quality ice has risen. Currently, many bars hand chip chunks of ice for stirred cocktails - a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. Bars like Sable, where Ryan works, can go through hundreds of cocktails a night, and speed is just as important as quality. Just Ice cuts out the dirty work by making large batches of clear cubes and selling them at 65 cents a pop. The ice does not have any of the deformities, air pockets or cracks that common ice suffers from, which means it melts slower and doesn't dilute cocktails. An Old Fashioned will taste relatively the same from the first sip to the last sip when chilled on Ryan's rocks.

To learn how this hot commodity is created and turned into very cool cocktails, we spent a day making ice in the Just Ice warehouse, then sampled the goods in Ryan's iced-out cocktails.

Photos by Nick Murway

Just Ice’s ice machine freezes blocks of ice in a process that's similar to how a lake freezes. The cooling mechanism freezes water from the bottom up - rather than from outside in - and has a circulator on the top so unfrozen water is never still. Each block yields about 400 cubes.

Blocks are removed from the freezing machine using a small crane, then they're allowed to temper (similar to chocolate making). The ice is warmed until all of the frost melts away and only clear ice remains. This lag time also ensures that the ice will not crack when cut.

Just Ice has applied for a small business loan, so they can purchase a band saw designed for ice carving. In the meantime, the large blocks must be cut into smaller blocks that fit onto the industrial-grade saw. Time to break out the chainsaw.

A food-grade saw is used to remove the uneven edges and any cracked ice. This means that when the blocks are cut into their final cubes, each edge will be perfectly straight. The precise cubes have less surface area than hand chipped ice, which means it melts slower and more evenly in a drink.

Most ice blocks are cut into uniform cubes, but can also be customized to fit different glassware. The cubes sent to Three Dots and a Dash are slightly smaller than standard in order to fit into their tapered-rim rocks glasses. The team is experimenting with making entire punch bowls out of ice. They can also freeze garnishes and liquids inside of the cubes.

Cubes are packaged in bags that hold a dozen. Most of the stockpile is stored in a large freezer in the Fortress of Solitude before it is shipped in batches to area bars.

The main obstacle preventing Just Ice from expanding is a lack of storage at the bars. Sable has a standing freezer that can store a large volume of ice, but most bars and restaurants rely on ice machines and must store the gourmet rocks in walk-ins.

Once the ice reaches its final destination, it is up to the bartenders to properly show it off. Ryan uses both the cube and the rectangle ice in drinks at Sable. The ice melts so slowly that is can be reused if a customer orders refills on certain cocktails.

The final product is equal parts delicious and beautiful.

See all of the photos from our shoot here.