Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Ice can make or break a proper cocktail. But do you want to be charged separately for it?
One of my friends gets a Gin Rickey every time she goes to Bar Charley near Dupont Circle—mostly for the delicious cylinder of lime ice in the drink. Bar Charlie doesn't charge you more for the fancy ice, but the nearby Second State will when it opens later this month. That will make it the first restaurant in D.C. that lists an ice surcharge on its menu for ice from Favourite Ice Company, writes City Paper's Jessica Sidman. She quotes manager Phil Clark explaining why it's so worth it:
"When it [the ice] goes into a cocktail, it's crystal clear. It's purified water, so there's no minerally taste."
There's not much data yet on how wide this ice-surcharge trend has spread, says Mary Chapman, senior director of product innovation at Technomic, a firm that researches food and drink industry. She sees the appeal, though. Adding ice frozen into specific shapes, textures, and flavors can alter the drink, she says. But listing it separately is quite "nervy"—because then you really have to convince the buyer that you're selling more than just frozen water.
And for the Gin Rickey or '80s Old Fashioned (with a black cherry ice sphere) at Bar Charley, the ice is more than just frozen water; it's integral to the cocktail.
"Part of the point of both of these cocktails is that the flavor changes over time," owner Gordon Banks writes in an email. "The ice is not there just to keep your drink cold. Your first sip gives you only a hint of what your last sip will be."
The bar has built the cost of producing the ice, which they do in-house, into the price of the drink. More than the ingredients, it's the labor that's expensive: a couple dozen lime cylinders take 45 minutes of prep time, excluding freezing.
My friend says she's willing to pay for that transformative experience—even if the ice was listed separately and she had the option to skip it. She wants to sip on a long-lasting, slow-melting drink that doesn't get her too drunk on a hot day. (Our Gin Rickey fangirl is a self-professed lightweight.)
Even without special flavor, "artisanal" ice can add "time as an ingredient," says Meghan McCarron, an Austin-based food and drink blogger. She knows of a couple of bars around town that are doing in-house artisanal ice, but not any that list the price separately. The whole idea behind fancy ice is that if you're taking so much time and putting effort into making the perfect cocktail, so what's the point of diluting the effort with less-than-perfect ice? She recently wrote about Josh Loving, an Austin bartender who espouses just this defense of artisanal ice.
It's what Long Island's Dutch Kills bar's Hundredweight Ice company believes too. "It never occurred to us to blatantly list any extra charges for ice because it is understood that ice is the catalyst that prompts the completion of a successful cocktail," owner Richard Boccato writes in an email.
The company supplies "hand-cut, crystal-clear" ice to craft-cocktail-slinging joints around New York City and beyond. They don't identify as "artisanal" but say that their techniques rely on a "somewhat mechanized workshop that runs on elbow grease."
Charley's owner Banks says he would be surprised if listing an ice surcharge really takes off. But there are arguably some benefits to separating out the ice price. For one, people like knowing what they're paying for and why. That's the opinion of Jeffrey Morgenthaler, mixologist and manager at Clyde Common and Pepe Le Moko in Portland.
"The guest should be made well aware of this policy, as ice is not typically something one expects to be charged for," he says.
Second, the act of listing it separately assigns it a certain value—and perhaps, even makes people more likely to want to pay for a little cube of luxury. It goes back to what Chapman says about convincing the client that they're getting something special.
Whether that idea flies with clientele also depends on what kind of drinking establishment we're talking about: High-end places offering theater and craft in their cocktails can probably get a way with listing the price for fancy ice on their menu. The neighborhood dive bar? Not so much.