Crystal Clear

When it comes to making the perfect cocktail, don’t overlook the ice. 

Thomas “T” Leggett slid a perfectly clear drink across the bar to a customer who ordered a vodka on the rocks. The customer stared at the glass and repeated his order, convinced the bartender had just handed him a glass of vodka neat.

“I told him, yeah, it’s in there,” Leggett says. “He looked again and put his finger in the drink and touched the ice cube. He was like, ‘Whoa!’”

Clear ice is a must-have for bars that want to impress. It’s not always easy to source, and bartenders say making it and carving it themselves is time-consuming and tedious—but they also say it’s worth it.

“Visually, it’s stunning,” says Leggett, who goes through about 30 cubes a night with straight pours alone at The Roosevelt in Richmond.

Tucked away just off the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville is the Alley Light, a cozy, retro bar with wood accents, a fireplace, leather armchairs and a giant block that sits on a tray behind the bar—almost a decorative element.

“We don’t have a cold plate or a freezer to use for service, so just we set the block out and cut cubes to order,” says bar manager Micah LeMon.

Like Leggett, LeMon makes ice one block at a time using a method called directional freezing. He places the water in a small insulated cooler in the freezer. The water freezes from the top down, pushing any air bubbles and other impurities to the bottom of the block, where they can later be cut off. The remaining ice is dense and perfectly clear, and it melts more slowly than regular ice. The bar goes through a block each night.

“We have antique glassware, so it’s a fun little jigsaw puzzle of trying to cut cubes for the oddly shaped glasses,” says LeMon.

At the Rogue Gentlemen in Richmond, owner John Maher has a dedicated freezer for storing clear ice. He buys 10 blocks (at 30 pounds apiece) every other week, delivered from a company in Manassas that uses a special machine called a Clinebell to make giant clear blocks for decorative carving.

“We tried in the beginning to make it ourselves with different molds and methods,” says Maher, “but it was a problem of consistency. We might get some cubes that were nice and others that were garbage. I didn’t want to just fill molds with tap water and freeze them, I’d rather serve something really great.”

Maher breaks down each block into 2 ½-inch cubes, which takes about an hour.

“If you make a great drink and put crappy ice in it, it’s watered down in a few minutes and your great drink is now garbage,” Maher says. “We put so much time and effort into our drinks, the ice is about creating the best experience for the guest.” (Many bartenders still use ordinary ice in cloudy mixed drinks, saving the hand-carved cubes to highlight clear spirits or straight pours of whiskey and bourbon.)

Here are our favorite watering holes in Virginia serving clear ice.

The Alley Light, Charlottesville

Bar PX, Alexandria

Lost Saint, Charlottesville

The Rogue Gentlemen, Richmond

The Roosevelt, Richmond

Want to try it at home? Liquid Intelligence, by Dave Arnold, of New York City’s high-tech bar Booker & Dax and winner of the 2015 James Beard Award for best beverage book, explains the technique of directional freezing and other bar chemistry.

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