Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

The thermometer read 103 degrees as I made my way to the R Bar at the Camelback Inn in Paradise Valley, Ariz.

Ironically, I had come to learn about ice.

Trudy Thomas is the director of beverage at the historic Inn and oversees the property’s extensive cocktail and wine programs. She is also a fanatic about ice cubes, which may seem picayune to some but, as I soon learned, is of extraordinary import to those who, 1) like great cocktails, and 2) serve them in a place where the temperature regularly reaches triple digits.

As we gathered in the R Bar, the hotel’s main watering hole, which flows from a contemporary indoor lounge out onto a southwest-style patio filled with comfy sofas and chairs assembled around fire pits, I led the witness with my first question: “So Trudy, what’s the most important ingredient in a cocktail?”

“Ice,” she smiled, taking the bait as she ordered two house special “Rita Rita” margaritas – one made with the standard-issue ice that most bars use and the other with ice from a machine called a “Kold-Draft.” Both of the cocktails used the same recipe of Patron Silver, Cointreau, agave nectar and fresh lime juice.

Kold-Draft is a trademarked and patented ice machine made by a company of the same name based in Erie, Pa. The system injects water through tiny holes around a series of individual tin freezing units that are kept at a precise temperature. As the water freezes in the system at that exact temperature, impurities are flushed away, leaving only perfectly clear, perfectly hard, perfectly clean ice.

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“In the earliest days of fine cocktails in America, the experts like Jerry Thomas (a bartender in the mid-1800s and a seminal figure in the creation of American cocktail culture) took great care to get the freshest, cleanest ice possible,” she explained. “But like fast foods, bars have followed a path of convenience over the years instead of the path of quality.”

In the last decade, however, there has been a movement among bartenders, like chefs, to use classic techniques in their preparations and only the freshest and best ingredients. And that includes good ice. “Ice is at the base of most cocktails and it not only keeps a drink cold, it can dilute and greatly affect the flavor of the rest of the cocktail,” Trudy says.

As our drinks arrived, it was easy to see a difference in the glasses. The one with the Kold-Draft cubes was clear and undiluted, and the cubes were large with rough, rounded edges that looked like they had just popped from an iceberg. In the other glass, the drink was already being corrupted by melting ice, the tequila concoction was dimmer and the ice cubes were, well, significantly less appealing.

The taste difference was even more dramatic. The tequila was clear and bracing, very up front in the Kold-Draft version. I got a hit of orange, a little sweetness from the nectar and a touch of sour from the lime. It was a great drink, a revelatory margarita in the best sense of the word. The other drink, which was quickly becoming watery, was good as well, but in comparison seemed almost muddled as the flavors became interchangeable rather than distinct.

Trudy ordered two glasses of Basil Hayden Bourbon with a cube of Kold-Draft ice in one and “bar ice” in the other as she told me how the Kold-Draft system came to the Camelback. “When I came to the Inn last year they were undergoing a huge renovation. I was able to convince them that ice, particularly in a place known for having questionable water and high temperatures, was important if they wanted a serious cocktail program,” she said.

“Fortunately they budgeted for a Kold-Draft and everybody here is glad they did.” The only drawback I could see was that once you have a cocktail with Kold-Draft ice, going without seems, well, pedestrian.

As we continued to chat, the glasses of Bourbon arrived at the table.

In one there was a brown liquid with a rim of water and a fast-melting cube. In the other there was cold Bourbon and a big cube of ice.

Guess which tasted better.