The Artisanal Ice Trend Comes to Milwaukee’s Cocktail Scene

Customized ice is making a splash in upscale bars. Our expert explains.

I ordered the Manhattan at Hotel Madrid’s Vermuteria 600 bar, because I like Manhattans, and I suspected the chic, Spanish-themed Walker’s Point bar had a special way with them. I was right, and then some. The drink was served on a slice of a birch-tree trunk. Instead of a cherry, there was some cherry-flavored popcorn scattered along the side of the glass. It was over the top, but I was amused by the ingenuity.

But that wasn’t the most interesting thing about the cocktail. It was served on the rocks. Or, rather, one rock – a perfect sphere of ice.

Custom ice has been a thing in cocktail circles for more than a decade. Large, clear cubes are cut to fit rocks glasses, and long ice spears pierce highballs, while retro drinks like cobblers get pebbled ice. Some of this is for aesthetics, but there are practical advantages as well; thicker ice means a more gradual dilution of your drink. Since the cocktail revival dawned, I have been treated to many drinks made prettier and better by artisanal ice.

The trend has been slow to reach Milwaukee, where most bars make do with the thin chips that mixologists refer to as “cheater ice.” That’s changing.

“I definitely think it makes the drinks taste better,” says Gen Longoria, head bartender at the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel, which has two wells, a restaurant bar and a rooftop bar called The Outsider.

When I ordered a tall drink called Eighteen Hours of Noon – a sort of deep-flavored Pimm’s Cup, sprinkled with mint black Hawaiian salt – my highball came with a crooked spine of perfect 1½-by-1½-inch cubes. An old fashioned received a single, even bigger cube, so clear it disappeared in the glass. These beauties are hand-delivered weekly by a Chicago outfit called JustIce, which deals in, you guessed it, just ice.

Like a man in a white evening jacket, a cocktail adorned with craft ice tends to get noticed. “Customers always comment, ‘Oh my God, you have great ice!’” says Longoria.

The spheres at Vermuteria 600 are made from molds. Beverage director Daniel Beres uses them in a couple special cocktails and for spirits served on the rocks.

“We wanted to elevate the drinks,” he says. “If we’re going to use a $400 bottle of spirits in a cocktail, ice is another ingredient like anything else. If we give it to them with cheap ice, the cocktail is for naught.”

But good ice does not require good behavior.

“Our motto is drinking should be fun,” says Adam James Sarkis at the Phoenix Cocktail Club, where they cut cubes from large blocks of ice they freeze themselves. “Playing around with crystal clear ice cubes in your drink is fun.”

That follows. We play with our food when we’re kids. As adults, why not play with our drinks? ◆

‘On the Rocks’ appears in the September 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning August 28, or buy a copy at

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