By Jason O'Bryan / Photos By Brevin Blach
The secret ingredient in every cocktail: water. Dilution from ice becomes 25-40 percent of every drink. With that in mind, more San Diego mixologists are treating ice with the same maniacal obsession they treat everything else.
It goes like this: the bigger the ice cube, the higher the ratio of volume-to-surface area, and the slower the dilution. In an Old Fashioned, for taste's sake, slower is better. Other times - say with a Mint Julep - the drink is formulated to need a lot of dilution, so you want tiny pieces that melt faster.
Downtown's longstanding cocktail dive El Dorado has two different ice machines for just this purpose. One is called Kold Draft, which makes perfect 1¼-inch cubes. Another, standard ice machine makes what is referred to (with mild condescension) as "hotel ice."
"Hotel ice is for vodka-sodas and things like that," says El Dorado general manager Steven Tuttle. "We use Kold Draft for the craft cocktails, where low dilution levels are more important."
At Bailiwick, the new, plantation/minimalist mixology spot in the Gaslamp, they get their big ice by chiseling pieces off an enormous, 50-pound block that sits on the back bar.
And if they need more dilution? General manager Jason Fackler chills his Bramble cocktail by taking one of the large pieces and hammering it to dust in a canvas bag.
"Crushed ice is very summer-y," he says. "It gives a drink the snow-cone effect." He'll frequently let the customers hammer the ice while he assembles the rest of the drink. "People like the show. If I make one, I know I'll be making 10 more."
At Cusp, the aggressively modern oasis on the 11th floor of the Hotel La Jolla, mixologist Nate Howell has taken ice to the next level. In addition to Kold Draft, tiny pellet ice, three molds and long cubes designed to fit tall glasses, he utilizes a two-inch cube of oak-infused ice.
"This barrel ice allows for more flavor to be extracted," says Howell. "Vanilla and cinnamon flavors come out, instead of just regular water. The ice will dissolve slowly, but the drink will progressively get better.
Which is a wonderful thing - but take note: a few of them will make everything look progressively better.