5 Things You Might Not Know About Ice and Water


[Photograph: Amy Cavanaugh]

How much thought do you give to the ice in your glass or the drops of water you add to your Scotch? At Tales of the Cocktail, Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta from Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston (and who are opening Julep, a mint julep-focused bar, later this year) conducted a seminar on the history of ice, and cocktail writer Camper English led another on water's role in spirits and cocktails. The two seminars explored the role water and ice has played in drinks throughout history, and Heugel, Huerta, and English shared a few tidbits you might not have heard before.

1. The ice trade led to the citrus trade.

We already told you the story of Boston businessman Frederic 'The Ice King' Tudor, who harvested ice from New England lakes and ponds and transported it to the Caribbean and all over the world starting in 1806, revolutionizing the ice trade and helping people develop a taste for cold drinks.

But there's more—when Tudor brought ice from New England to the Caribbean, the ships were filled with ice. But on the way back, they needed something to weigh down the ship. Tudor filled the boats with citrus fruits, which he then made available to bartenders in the Northeast. As a result, lime juice became available in places it normally would not have been, and cocktails began to incorporate the tart liquid.

"He didn't just bring ice into glasses, but he brought ingredients that are staples when we think abut drinking today," Heugel said. "Tudor was a very important person to bartenders."

2. The two-bladed saw revolutionized the ice trade.

Nathaniel Wyeth worked with Tudor in Massachusetts and realized that the ice trade would be more efficient if blocks were cut into uniform sizes. So he invented a horse-drawn, two-bladed ice cutter that reduced the cost of harvesting ice and allowed it to be stored and transported more easily.

"He came up with a more progressive way of harvesting ice and created a better block to transport," Huerta said. "He considered space issues and cut ice into perfect squares, trying to make it possible to carry the ice further without melting."

3. Branded ice was big.

Just like today, people paid attention to brand names, and American ice harvesters created brands based on where the ice came from.

"Tudor was a savvy businessman and since he sourced from different ponds and lakes, he started different companies with different names," Huerta said. "Queen Victoria used American ice and she became hooked on the Wenham Ice Company."

American ice became so popular that Norway renamed a pond Wenham Lake to try to increase domestic ice sales in Europe. In the U.S., ice coming from the Hudson River was marketed to the people of New York as coming from somewhere with higher status.

4. Southern cocktail culture lagged, in part due to ice.

During the Civil War, ice distribution was halted to the Southern states. "Ice allowed people to preserve food for longer periods of time, so as a way to harm the South, one of the first things embargoed was the ice trade," Heugel said.

At the time that Jerry Thomas' cocktail guide was published in 1862, the South didn't have much access to ice at all. Heugel said, "New Orleans was the only Southern city that embraced cocktail culture at that time because it had access to ice, since it was a port city. Outside of New Orleans there aren't as many things. And the primary reason for that is the ice trade embargo."

While ships and ice were flowing freely by 1866, it was pricey and many people lacked the resources to pay for it. Ice became more accessible and affordable later in the 19th century, when people started artificially producing ice, but it remained a status symbol.

"The julep is a great example of this," Heugel says. "A symbol of wealth at parties was cocktails and juleps were the biggest brag in the cocktail game. Juleps required a mound of ice that only the wealthy could afford," Huerta added.

5. The minerals in water affect a spirit's flavor.

Water makes up around 60% of almost every spirit we drink. At Tales of the Cocktail, Camper English demonstrated why the source of that water (or any water you mix into your drinks) might matter. (He's been exploring questions related to water on his website, Alcademics over the last few months.) In a chemistry-lab like demonstration we added magnesium to water, which made it taste hard and chalky. Adding whiskey to that made the spirit taste sweeter and flatter than it did alone. When we added calcium to water, it was really chalky, but when mixed with whiskey, the result was fruity and much darker in color.

English referenced a water tasting that Bowmore master distiller Rachel Barrie conducted, in which she found floral and herbal flavors in harder water; honey and citrus flavors in pure water; and peppery peat, iodine, and brine in more acidic water. English said that these water types align with waters used at different distilleries in Scotland. Islay's Ardilistry Spring offers water with high acidity as the result of filtering through peat. Sandstone and limestone filtration gives water at St. Colman's Well in the Highland region a hardness high in minerals, while Speyside's Cairngorms Well comes up through hard granite, and ends up lower in minerals.

English then looked at the mineral content of various bottled water brands. Want to add water that's like Speyside's to your whiskey? Choose Highland Spring. Mountain Valley and Fiji, English says, are closer to Highlands water. Fiuggi water is the closest he found to the water in Islay, which is worth keeping in mind for your next dram of Laphroaig.

About the Author: Amy Cavanaugh writes about food, drink, and travel from her home base of Chicago.