MIXOLOGY TALK PODCAST, EPISODE #181

We are continuing our ice month by talking with L.A. bartender Huy Nang Pham, who has a lot of experience with creating in-house ice– and even hand-carving his own ice balls! From how to break down ice to what kind of ice to choose for which drink, if you want to learn more about working with craft cocktail ice at your bar or in your own home, you’ve come to the right place.

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • 0:48– Huy’s introduction into ice
  • 3:50– Why does ice actually matter?
  • 6:15– Breaking down ice (8:48 for an explanation of the process and tools)
  • 13:40– Types of ice and how to choose which to use
  • 18:40– Penny Pound Ice’s equipment
  • 22:39– Biggest tips for breaking down large format ice

MEET HUY!

Huy Nang Pham is a whisk(e)y curator with Bar Jackalope and Seven Grand in Los Angeles. At Bar Jackalope, he shares his passion for whiskey with guests and works to discover the next great whiskey for someone to sip on. Prior to curating at Bar Jackalope, he learned the ropes of the bar, including hand-carving ice for cocktails and whiskey-on-the-rocks.

His proudest achievement with Bar Jackalope is selecting a Blanton’s barrel with the team in Kentucky, and his name is now featured on the bottles from that barrel. Both Huy and Bar Jackalope are heavily influenced by Japanese bartending, and Huy can’t wait to get back on the streets of Ginza to ask bartenders questions in rudimentary Japanese and continue learning more.

WHY DO YOU EVEN NEED FANCY ICE?

I mean, do we really need fancy ice? Of course not. But does it make a craft cocktail infinitely better? Yes, yes it does. 

Since people are visual creatures, you can’t really overlook the importance of aesthetics. Ice is a way to make a drink just a little more visually and kinesthetically appealing. Plus, there are also practicalities to using certain types of ice in terms of dilution (more on that in just a bit). As Huy explains, 

“I think it’s one of those things where it’s another aspect of control that you can take over. It’s kind of like why empty your bitters bottles into another dasher, or why juice your own citrus instead of having someone else juice it for you? It’s ‘cause you can control the aspects of it a bit little more.

It doesn’t necessarily increase the quality, but once you understand why you’re doing it and you have that control over it, you can say ‘I like large cubes ‘cause they dilute slower, so I can control the size of my large cubes,’ or ‘My glassware doesn’t fit this cube exactly, so we can make a slightly smaller cube,’ and all these small things just start adding up to get that last like 1-2% of how good a cocktail can taste.”

Huy went to Japan to further study bartending, which is where he found a passion for making his own ice. Based on his experience, he says small bars in Japan don’t have ice machines, so everything is purchased from an ice manufacturer and then hand-cut. And when you’re an apprentice at a Japanese bar for several years and aren’t even making cocktails yet, hand-carving an ice ball is a way to show you really care about that drink and your craft.

It’s also a way to show off your skills, and Huy carries that pride into his own work at Bar Jackalope. Even if it seems small, perfecting your ice can really demonstrate care for what you’re making, whether you’re a professional or not.

LET’S BREAK IT DOWN

OK, so you want to try your hand at making craft ice: Now what? Huy walks us through his process, including all the tools he uses. (If you watch this, jump to minute 8:48 to actually see his saw and hear him elaborate on his specific tools.) Huy buys a 13-lb block from Penny Pound Ice and follows the process below to cut the ice down into usable styles.

PROCESS & TOOLS

The first step is to break down the ice into 2” slices. 

  • Huy uses a toothed hand saw, approximately 16” long.
  • If you watch the video, you’ll see it looks a bit aggressive! But, really, what do you expect when you’re cutting into ice?

Then he uses a flat soba or udon knife (yes, like the noodles) and a wooden mallet to cut the ice into smaller cubes.

  • He makes an incision with the knife and taps it with the mallet to make the cut.
  • You can also use a rubber mallet, although Huy recommends a wooden one.
  • Using this method keeps you from losing as much ice as you would if you just sawed into it (think sawdust made out of ice). 

Finish by shaping the ice into your desired format with a regular paring knife.

TIPS

  • Just like Gordon from Penny Pound Ice told Chris, you need to let your ice warm up a little before cutting into it; otherwise, it will shatter… and no one wants that!
  • Get to know your tools. It seems like a no-brainer, but the better you understand how your tools work and how the ice responds, the easier the whole process will become.
  • Your tools have to be sharp! Ice cuts very cleanly with sharp knives; but if your tools aren’t sharp, you end up just hacking at the ice.
  • Dealing with frozen hands? Use a towel to separate the ice from your hands…  But Huy also says you’ll just get used to it with lots of practice.
  • Be patient: With experience comes improvement. You’ll also learn to go by your instinct.

“The first time you break down an ice block, it’s going to take you forever. It’s just going to take you forever. And then after that, you’ll get faster and faster, and you’ll chip it less, you’ll shatter it less, and it’s just very satisfying and you’ll understand more about ice just by the fact that you do it. You’ll start noticing little nuances, like I prefer my ice a little bit bigger in this glass or I prefer my ice a little bit smaller in my shaker.” — Huy Nang Pham

SO MANY TYPES OF ICE!

Other than using a pebble ice machine (it really can’t be beat, can it?), Huy prefers to crack all his own ice. He has a lot of knowledge and opinions on what ice to use for what purpose, so I highly recommend jumping to minute 13:40 to listen to him in detail, but let’s walk through some examples.

Ask yourself what you want out of your ice (Hint: Think about dilution): Looking for less dilution in an already-diluted drink? Use a large ball of ice that fills your glass. Making an Old Fashioned? Grab 2-3 medium-to-large-sized cubes to cool it down a little bit. Serving a Tom Collins in a tall glass? Try a long sphere of ice.

Aside from Old Fashioned or built cocktails, most cocktails are at the desired temperature already, so you just have to maintain that temperature. Huy suggests using larger cubes, whatever fits the glass. You don’t have to over-ice! (I’m #guilty of that one…)

SHAKE, SHAKE, SHAKE

Alright, so we have a better idea of what ice to use for which cocktail, but what about shaking? Don’t you just throw a bunch of small cubes in the shaker and go crazy? 

Huy actually likes to shake with large format ice and uses a cobbler shaker rather than a Boston; he prefers 3-4 larger cubes for clear spirits like gin and 2-3 cubes for brown spirits. Why? It provides dilution and some cracking of the ice in the shaker. 

“The large format ice is going to be more dense, so it tends to allow you to shake and have more control without it shattering in your shaker and without it starting to just dilute as shards. But I tend to want smaller cubes in a more aggressive shake so that there is still some shattering, there is some more of that aggressive dilution. […] And it’s sort of the same approach for stirred cocktails […] you don’t want a bunch of edges, you don’t want a bunch of cubes that are very small so that the dilution is something that runs away from you.” –Huy Nang Pham

So how do you use ice? Are you a large-format or pebble ice kind of person? Have you ever carved your own ice ball? We want to see it! Whatever you create with gorgeous ice, please hop on over to our Facebook group and share it with us. And while we don’t sell saws, we do have lots of amazing cocktail equipment over in our shop, so go check it out. Until next time, stay cool, friends. (Sorry, I couldn’t help but make at least one ice joke.)

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