Sep 17, 2023 - Business

Charlotte’s hottest cocktail craze: Fancy ice

Fancy ice is having a moment.

What’s happening: The sometimes overlooked cocktail ingredient has gotten a glam-up.

State of play: Charlotte’s cocktail scene is booming, with sophisticated new bars cropping up all over.

  • Bartenders are prioritizing high-quality ingredients, like dehydrated limes and imported liquors to compliment the ice craze.

Why it matters: This is a national trend, evidenced by refrigerator makers like LG, which trademarked the term “Craft Ice” for the 2-inch ice orbs it makes, as well as the fact that the broader cocktail industry is embracing giant ice spheres, mini-cubes and novelty shapes, as Axios’ Jennifer Kingston reported.

  • Specialty ice, which typically melts more slowly than regular freezer ice, gives cocktails an elevated feel. It adds to the premium that customers pay for cocktails at bars and restaurants, too.

“You’re paying upwards of $15-18 a drink (at a bar). You don’t want something that you can put into a mold and make at home,” Kevin Chan, production manager for the Ice Trade, a cocktail ice company based in Charlotte, tells Axios.

Zoom out: Ice is a distinctly American preference, and it’s being “redefined as a luxury item,” as the New York Times recently wrote.

  • Designer ice — videos of it, discussions about it — is a social media phenomenon, too. On TikTok, the hashtag #icetok has nearly 1.7 billion views.
  • Ornate ice sculptures are common at big events like weddings.
  • Brands and restaurants often give ice a personal touch by stamping it with their own logo.

Between the lines: Throughout Charlotte, plenty of restaurants and bars make their own ice. That’s the case at Idlewild, a craft cocktail bar that opened in NoDa in 2019. Bartenders hand-carve chunks of ice in front of customers using old-school ice picks.

  • Other places outsource their ice.

Zoom in: In the fall of 2020, Scott Gadd, Larry Suggs and their business partners at ETA Group began producing hand-crafted ice for family and friends. Word got around in the industry — the ETA Group opened The Royal Tot and owns spots like Stroke — and other bars and restaurants started asking to buy their ice. Thus, the Ice Trade was born.

  • The ice-making company has surged in popularity since then, taking on big-name cocktail sellers throughout Charlotte, from the Punch Room in Uptown to Corkscrew in Fort Mill to Mizu in SouthPark.
  • In the last year, sales have risen 30-40%, Chan estimates.

How it works: The Ice Trade has machines that freeze 40-gallon blocks of ice at a time. It takes up to four days to freeze that much water, Chan tells Axios. As the filtered water freezes, there are pumps moving it around, clearing it of any sediment and pushing out tiny air bubbles. What you’re left with is a huge clear block of ice.

  • From there, Ice Trade staffers use chainsaws to chop the block down to smaller pieces. After that, they cut them down even further to customers’ desired shapes and sizes.
  • For ornate shapes and sculptures, Ice Trade partners with a company in Asheville called the Ice Mill, which has “made art out of frozen water” since 2020, per its website.
  • Ice Trade distributes throughout the Charlotte region but they’re now looking to expand beyond that. The business is also seeking a larger, temperature-controlled space beyond its current South End spot.

The bottom line: “(Customers) can taste a difference in their drinks. It looks and tastes different than what you’d get in a mold,” Chan says. “It’s a cleaner product, and it doesn’t dilute your drink as much.”

Here’s a look at the Ice Trade’s process:

Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios
Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios
Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios
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