By Terrence Henry
By this point in Austin’s craft cocktail renaissance, you’re likely familiar with some of the everyday tools used by our town’s growing cadre of mixologists: the jiggers, the eye droppers, the strainers and shakers. But at a select few bars in town, if you know where to look, you’ll also find what looks like a room out of shop class, with an engine hoist, rubber boots, gloves, goggles, plenty of clamps and a large, food-safe table saw.
One of these bars is Small Victory, Josh Loving’s new craft cocktail hideaway he opened with Brian Stubbs earlier this year on Seventh Street downtown. Walk through the dark, lusty interior of the main bar and at the far end you’ll come to a low-ceilinged room, full of fluorescent glare. This is the Ice Room, and it has one mission: making clear, hard, clean ice.
It’s an arduous task that takes days and plenty of patience. Loving, the designer of the bar’s menu and ice program, starts by softening and purifying water. Then he fills two large vats of a Clinebell ice machine, which looks something like a large stainless steel deep freezer. A water pump keeps things moving and agitated, mimicking the flow of pristine rivers and lakes you’d find supplying the icehouses of yesteryear. “If you’re constantly moving the water, you’re going to keep everything on top from freezing in,” Loving says. “It’s a perfectly clear, layer-by-layer process.” And it’s huge: the finished blocks weigh 300 pounds each.
These blocks are done one at a time, and take up to three days to freeze through. That’s quite a bit of lead time for a component that’s used in nearly every drink at the bar, but a lot of practice and planning keeps them from running out, though they’ve come close a time or two.
A hoist is used to move blocks from the freezing vat to a stainless steel carving table. There, Loving uses an electric, water-cooled chainsaw to break them up into a dozen or so smaller blocks called “loaves.” These loaves will then be broken down by a sharp-bladed butcher's table saw into smaller pieces that will be used for shaking, stirring and cooling cocktails.
“It’s made with blood and bone in mind,” Loving says of the saw. That means stainless steel or aluminum parts, and a carbon steel blade, with teeth that can cut through meat, opposed to a table saw designed for wood. “I went bigger for Small Victory,” Loving says. “The Cadillac stuff.” It cost over three thousand dollars. (And once, it almost cost him his middle finger.)
Loving has spent time behind the counters of most of the best bars in town, and he’s one of two craft cocktail makers in Austin who goes through the painstaking effort to create and cut his own ice from scratch. The other bar with a similar program is Half Step on Rainey Street, whose ice program was run by Loving before he opened Small Victory.
“It’s not an impatient man’s game,” says Rashid Barrett, who was trained in the ways of ice making at Half Step and took over the icehouse there after Loving left. Barrett estimates he spends about 40 hours a week making and cutting ice for the bar. Then he’s behind the bar another three to four nights on top of that.
Why go to all this trouble? For one, it’s a key component of every cocktail, both a tool (to cool the drink) and ingredient (the water to provide dilution). Clear, dense ice has no odors or impurities, and melts more slowly, depending on the size it is cut. And the cut can be customized: a large rock for straight spirits, or smaller cubes for a variation on the Whiskey Sour. With the right ice, your drink tastes the same on the last sip as it did on the first.
And unlike spirits or juices, ice is a cocktail ingredient Loving or Barrett can have a lot of control and influence over from its very inception. “If you’re going to charge a premium, it’s nice to be able to have fresh, pristine ingredients across the board: fresh-squeezed juice, good booze, and clear, hard ice. If you don’t have the ice right, that’s one less drink that is as good as it can be,” Loving says.
Plus, it just looks cool. At Half Step, you’re going to enjoy your Gin and Tonic with a “spear” of clear, dense ice that fills the glass from top to bottom, a far more pleasing drink than one stuffed with the opaque, impure crescents from your home freezer.
There’s a bit of showmanship involved, too. Who can’t help anticipating their cocktail a little more watching someone use an oversized, industrial strength fork to chip away the edges of a crystal clear cube so it nestles perfectly into an Old Fashioned’s glass? Watching the tiny, clear slivers fly across the bar only heightens the experience. “You just bought that drink with your eyes,” Loving says, and it’s true.
There’s an easier way, the route most craft cocktail bars take: buying their ice (usually by the loaf) pre-made by a third party, like Javier Flores’ Austin company Fat Ice, and both Loving and Barrett say there’s nothing wrong with that. They just prefer to do the work in-house to maintain quality, cost and control.
“As long as water keeps freezing and the electricity’s on, we don’t have to depend on anyone else to provide our raw materials,” Loving says. Barrett of Half Step agrees. “The biggest thing is consistency,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
It also means less waste. Even the shards of the blocks that that are removed in order to get properly proportioned bricks and cubes will later be used for cracked ice to stir Manhattans and Martinis. “I’m not saying everyone should do this,” Loving says. “It’s definitely a commitment.”
That could be why these two bars are unique and help set Austin’s growing cocktail scene apart from many of the others in town and across the state. Where others are content to buy their ice by the block and work from there, Loving’s more interested in closing the loop of the cocktail and making it entirely on their own. “You can add a million ingredients to a drink to make it good, but if you do it with good ice, it will always be better,” he says.
Cheers to that.
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