Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Beyond Clear Ice: The Latest in Ice Trends Involves Robots and Unique Branding

Star ice cube by West Coast Ice Provisions

It’s 2017. Cocktail enthusiasts-slash-geeks have come to expect crystal-clear spheres, slowly melting cubes and frozen water whose shapes jive with the drink’s vessel and category, from spears in Collins glasses to pebble ice for Cobblers. So where do we go from here?

Now, companies are using robots and engineering software to create logos and shapes on—and in—your cubes. “We’re just at the beginning of the big, bold, fun, customized ice for cocktails trend,” says Camper English, a journalist and the publisher of Alcademics, speaking at a seminar on the subject at last July’s Tales of the Cocktail booze conference in New Orleans. “I think we’ll see things get a lot more creative before the excitement settles.”

Custom ice cube with tools by West Coast Ice Provisions.

When Greg Bryson was running a bar program at The Wallace in Culver City, Calif., several years ago, he was disappointed at the price gouging and poor customer service from the two local companies hawking cocktail ice. He convinced the restaurant’s owner to buy a saw and began cutting his own.

Other area bartenders got wind of it and wanted Bryson’s ice too, and in 2015, he co-founded West Coast Ice Provisions in Los Angeles. Soon, the company began putting shapes in the middle of Clinebell-harvested ice cubes using a proprietary method, with baker’s coloring and activated charcoal filling in the negative space removed by the robot’s etching tool. (Bryson, who studied computer science, wouldn’t divulge the exact method, but from photos and videos on the company’s Instagram feed, it appears the cubes are cut in half, shapes are carved and filled and the cubes are fused together.) They haven’t yet attempted spheres, but bartenders have been pretty vocal with their requests for male-anatomy-shape-filled spears for bachelorette parties.

Prism ice by West Coast Ice Provisions.

Most of his clients are corporations seeking that memorable, Instagrammable promotion. Cost depends on the intricacy of the logo; some take 15 minutes, and others an hour and a half. Bryson charges $3 to $4 a unit, and there are order minimums. The cubes are shipped via dry ice, with tips printed on the bags about how to store and handle them.

If that’s a little spendy, West Coast Ice Provisions offers a cheaper option. For around $1.75 per unit, a logo, shape or design can be etched onto the surface of the cube. “We give people a disclaimer to put the liquid in first, then the ice cube, and make sure the liquid doesn’t touch the logo,” says Bryson. “It’s not as crisp—what you’re seeing is ‘snow,’” he says. If the potable comes in contact with the design, it quickly washes away.

Umbrella ice cube with umbrella by West Coast Ice Provisions.

Surface etching is also the method behind the branded ice offered by Ice Bulb, a full-service ice company in Newport Beach, Calif., founded 10 years ago as an ice sculpture business. Around six years ago, owner Marc Entin noticed an uptick in luxury ice. He changed his business model but says the idea of putting a Skechers logo inside a sphere is really no different than carving a swan.

“It’s all computer-generated,” he says. “The logo goes into a computer program, and the CNC machine cuts it out and hand-packs the negative space with snow. We do all our work in a freezer, so once you pack the snow in there, it does kind of refreeze itself as it’s so tight.” “

Football-shaped ice by Ice Bulb.

Spheres start as two halves; one is etched and filled with snow, and both are fused together using a press. Two-inch logoed cubes cost $1.50 to $2 each, while spheres range from $2.50 to $3 each. The option has been popular with not only corporations but also sports teams hosting events at stadiums and ballparks.

For their part, bartenders generally know what they’re doing with the ice before the order is even placed. English points out that Manhattans and Old Fashioneds are the top choice for drinks served on custom rocks. And especially for logos etched on the surface (or put there via a branding tool, which renders an even more fleeting and less sharp design), it helps if the drinks are well-chilled so they won’t melt or crack the ice. Of course, when the logo is in the middle of a solid crystal-clear cube, sipping speed isn’t an issue.

Custom ice cubes by Ice Bulb.

Ice Bulb also freezes edible objects like fruits and flowers into cubes, and Bryson is experimenting with using edible rice paper to print photos that can be slipped inside cubes—a potential opportunity for brides and grooms looking for spend money on a super unique reception detail.

But for now, English says, customized ice remains mostly in the corporate realm. As Entin puts it: “If you’re a company that wants to be in front of people, it’s a great opportunity. Every time a person takes a sip, they can’t escape you.”