It seems ancient, even primordial — and indeed, ice has long played a fundamental role in our drinks. The first-century Roman emperor Nero was famous for enjoying iced drinks flavored with honey, while ice houses and “ice pits” like the Persian yakchal were used to store food and drinks even earlier. Wealthy Romans enjoyed glacial ice brought down from the mountains and stored in insulated cellars, which more or less remained the standard for a couple of millennia. But ice and iced drinks have actually gone through numerous changes, especially over the past two centuries.
As the entry for “ice” in a French science dictionary from 1770 puts it, “Ice must be considered in terms of our needs. … How many refreshing drinks are made with it?”
By 1806, ice was no longer reserved for the rich. In that year the Boston “ice king” Frederic Tudor started the 19th-century East Coast ice trade. It eventually employed some 90,000 people.
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A similar but smaller industry of sawing and shipping ice also sprung up in Norway around that time — you might remember it from the first scene of “Frozen.” Folks and hosts in London purchased ice harvested from Norwegian lakes; the ice was shipped and stored in enormous caverns (one of which archaeologists recently rediscovered, as the BBC reported in 2018).
After that, the European ice industry faded. According to “Refrigeration Nation” by Jonathan Rees, the Wenham Lake Ice Company was delivering ice to London until at least 1874, after which ice that was available for purchase mostly disappeared there. An early 20th-century medical journal quoted by Rees notes the lack of ice for sale in the U.K., complaining that “practically the only shop where [ice] may be obtained is that kept by the fishmonger.” (Needless to say, you probably wouldn’t want fish ice in your Manhattan.)
Ice in the Americas
Across the pond, ice became an essential part of our drinking culture, probably because so much of the U.S. is warmer than the Old World. Throughout the 19th century, shipped ice was consistently available in cities like New Orleans, San Francisco, and New York, which influenced the cocktails being invented there. And just as the U.S. natural-ice industry began to wane, industrial refrigeration and mechanically produced ice arrived.
(Also in the 19th century, Chilean brewers were using ice from icebergs to refrigerate their beer. By the 1850s, harvesting glacial ice became the go-to method for beer refrigeration. Ships towed icebergs from as far as the South Pole.)
A major change occurred in the 20th century, when, in the 1930s, American homes started to get their ice from the iceman. After that, some households had access to home refrigerators with built-in freezers.
Mastering Ice in Cocktails
While ice has remained popular in America, the biggest modern change to its preparation comes from Japan, where there has been a longstanding reverence for ice. That inspired the veneration with which ice is treated in Japanese cocktail culture, in turn influencing a generation of bartenders around the world to start taking ice more seriously.
This is why you’ll see bartenders emulating the likes of famed Japanese mixologist Hidetsugu Ueno, who, at Bar High Five in Tokyo, uses a blade to carve ice into “jewels.” His work and others’ has inspired bartenders around the world to consider ice’s precise shape and clarity when preparing cocktails.
Of course, ice has been with us forever. But its modern use as a beverage refresher is relatively new; and its artful mastery for alcoholic beverages, even more recent. Next time you’re sipping a drink with a perfectly sculpted cube, consider it took centuries of innovation before it could be dropped in your glass.