A Hand-Carved Ice Ball Could Make Your Drink Taste Better
Bartender and ice carver Andrea Patelli’s hands are huge and he’s tossing a block of ice around without gloves. With short jabs, he chops off the corners, then rounds the edges as a pile of frozen chips melt to a puddle.
All photos by the author.
There's a knife in my hand and I'm feeling nervous. I've no idea what I'm supposed to do with it.
Well, that's not completely true. I'm meant to be carving a ball out of a block of ice but exactly how I'm going to achieve that with a bread knife is a mystery to me.
"Just chop off the corners and then feel for the ball in your hand," says Andrea Patelli. "You should get one automatically."
He makes it sounds so simple but Patelli, the head bartender at Little Quarter in Stockholm, is something of an ice obsessive.
"My fingers are completely numb from frostbite," he tells me.
Of course he's going to make it sound easy, then. Plus if Patelli hacks at a block of ice and accidentally misses his mark, he's not going to notice the injury to his hands until he spots the blood. Whereas if I do that, there will be screaming. Lots of screaming.
Patelli's hands are huge and he's tossing a block of 10 centimetre square-ice around without wearing any gloves. With short jabs, he chops off the corners then rounds off the edges and—after about a minute or so—he's throwing a ball of ice up and catching it, the pile of frozen chips melting to a puddle of cold water on the table. He lops off a little bit more, plops it into a glass, and pours over a double measure of Absolut Elyx vodka. Done.
"The drink deserves good ice and it works as a garnish in it's own right," Patelli says. "Look at it. It's beautiful. Do you need anything else? Look at me. Do you think I'd put a flower on that?"
The drink does look cool (pardon the pun) and regardless, Patelli does not look like a man to be gainsaid.
"Unless you're a proper alcoholic if you order a drink like this, we're talking at least five minutes for you to enjoy your drink," he explains. "Commercial ice melts too quickly and makes a drink into flavoured water but this ice lasts and lasts."
Patelli is very particular about his ice, enough to get angry when he has to use poorer quality stuff.
"When I'm guest bartending and using a different kind of ice, I always fuck up the first three drinks. Shaking and stirring takes longer with good ice, so I always end up over-shaking and serving glasses of flavoured water," he says. "With my ice, when you're doing 500 serves between two of you, your shoulder hurts, because you have to keep your shaker tighter. But it's worth it. This ice makes better drinks."
Who knew ice mattered so much?
"Bartenders take so much care over their drinks but the wrong ice can ruin them," Patelli explains.
Turns out there's more to ice than its cooling capabilities. The water you use, the way you freeze it, and even the shape you cut it into all has an impact on the final drink.
"Machine ice is dirty. You can clean the machine as much as you like but it doesn't have the pure quality of water and that flavours the drink," adds Patelli.
To get a perfect freeze, the water needs to be frozen from one side and at a temperature that's not too low.
"When you put a tray of water in your freezer at home, it freezes at minus 18 from all sides and pushes the air into the middle. That's why you get that white bloom in the middle of your ice," he explains. "The ice we have freezes at around minus five from the bottom up so that the air in the water pushes to the top and gets released."
Every Monday at his bar in Stockholm, a 125 kilogram-block of this perfectly frozen ice gets delivered for him to chainsaw into slabs and then hack down with a knife into cubes ready to crush, smash, and carve into cocktails. The bigger the piece of ice, the more slowly it melts. For a straight drink, like a whisky or a vodka, the spirit is best served over a big block, so you can enjoy the drink for longer.
"Some bars, like the Aviary in Chicago, play smaller cubes of ice to their advantage flavour their ice so that as it melts new flavours are added to the drink," Patelli says.
In his own bar however, he's a purist and sticks with ice made from the cleanest Swedish water.
A big piece of ice doesn't have to be round. You can make a diamond or a pyramid, and you can use fancy tools for ice carving, like three pronged picks and chisels made from finest Japanese metal. But again, Patelli prefers simplicity, taking the humble bread knife as his tool of choice.
Which is what I have in my hand, along with all the theory in my head.
It's my turn. Glove on.
A minus 5 degrees Celsius block of ice is still too cold for me to hold for long—even with a glove—and my hands are much smaller than Patelli's so I can't chuck it about the same way. This merely serves as an incentive not to be hesitant and to get cracking.
I soon get the knack. Trying to knock off big chunks doesn't work. Instead, I emulate the short, sharp jab technique and a neat pile of ice chips begins to build on the table in front of me. The corners come off first, followed by any straight bits I can find.
I begin to get into the zone. I imagine I probably look like the stabber in Hitchcock's Psycho, concentrating hard on only lopping off ice (and not a fingertip) but miraculously, the ice gets smaller and rounder and easier to handle. The bread knife turns out to be a very easy tool to use, not too unwieldy an implement and its serrated edge gives a good bite into the ice. Like Michelangelo, I can feel the globe wanting to escape from the cube. My job is simply to release it from its straight-edged prison.
And then, just like he said it would, my ice globe appears. I assess its fit in the glass and chamfer a little more off the sides so it sits snug. The idea is for the ball to be just below the rim so that as you tip your drink, the ice doesn't end up resting on your top lip.
Well, not quite. My final ice ball is more rugby shaped than football shaped but it's close enough. It's not a competition winner and Patelli isn't going to hire me on the grounds of my speed or skill, but I'm pleased. With a glug of vodka over the top, the fruits of my labour have never tasted so sweet.