Serious Eats: Drinks

Drinking in History: How Ice Got Into Your Cocktail

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Girls deliver ice, 1918 [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

The cocktail boom of recent years has us all reexamining ice, abandoning those cloudy crescents from the fridge for chunks that look like the Hope diamond and drive up the price of your drink accordingly. Ice is an ingredient as important to cocktails as fresh fruit juice or quality liquor, but have you ever wondered how it ended up in your drink in the first place?

In the early years of the Republic, many drinks were served hot, a holdover from British drinking culture that used warm beverages to ward off damp chills. This tradition held even in America's muggy summer heat, under the logic that warm drinks produced sweat that drew heat from the body. But like many of the cultural notions transplanted from Europe to America, the cocktail was entirely reinvented when America decided to put it on ice.

Ice in the young nation was kept year round in icehouses, but availability was often limited to the wealthy, particularly in warmer southern states. This all changed, however, when Boston businessman Frederic 'The Ice King' Tudor revolutionized the ice trade starting in 1806 after his brother remarked that they could probably make a lot of money by shipping ice from Massachusetts lakes and ponds to the Caribbean. Tudor's early attempts to cash in were disastrous—he suffered huge financial losses when much of the ice melted during the voyage (it does that in warm weather). Besides that, potential customers didn't really know what to do with the frozen stuff.

Tudor solved the first problem by packing his ice better and insulating it with sawdust, and by the 1830s he was selling ice in places as distant as India. He solved the second problem—demand from customers—with cocktails. Tudor's initial customers bought ice to preserve food and medicine, but he later branched out by selling ice to cafes and wealthy households so they could chill their drinks.

Shrewdly, Tudor gave away his first shipments for free, enticing customers with the novelty of slushy relief from the sun's glaring heat with cocktails such as the Smash. Not unlike a perverse ice-cream man building a customer base by handing out crack-laced sno-cones, Tudor started charging for the ice once people were hooked and he had built a monopoly in areas where he controlled the icehouses (and had paid off local officials.) Once people had tried icy-cold drinks, they could never be presented with them warm again, Tudor wrote.

Over the course of the 1800s, iced drinks caught on as technical improvements for harvesting, shipping, and storing ice brought its cost down and made it more widely available. America's booming frozen-water trade supplied ice to the world as it refined the formula for turning extravagant luxuries into necessities. Alongside slushy cocktails, Americans also developed a taste for ice cream, and German immigrants were able to make lager beer (which is fermented and conditioned at lower temperatures) all year long. The ice trade also transformed Tudor into one of America's earliest millionaires.

Tudor died in 1864, but a glimpse of the ice he helped make available to normal folk was offered in 1862, on the eve of the Gilded Age that saw American industry build cities to the sky and bring the national expanse together with railroads. That year famed bartender Jerry Thomas published The Bartenders Guide, which put into words for the first time many of the recipes for America's cocktails. Some were simple and others were extravagant, calling for fresh fruit and other ingredients that weren't always easy to obtain. But regardless of hard-to-find ingredients, the majority of the recipes called for ice.

About the Author: Reid Mitenbuler is a Washington, DC-based writer. He is currently writing a book about bourbon for Viking/Penguin. Find him online at The Bourbon Empire and on Twitter @ReidMitenbuler.

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