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The Boozy Snow Cone Is Ruling Summer

As summer heat descended onto New York City this year, Masa Urushido released his first kakigori cocktail at Katana Kitten—an equal-parts Negroni spiked with strawberry syrup, mounded with lemon stock ice and served in a paper snow cone cup. He sold 200 during Negroni Week alone.

For Urushido, the Kakigori Negroni is the ultimate expression of his Japanese-American bar concept. It’s also pure adult joy. “This is as classic and authentic as kakigori gets,” he says.

Historically, kakigori has meant one thing: a dessert of shaved ice with flavored syrup and, often, accoutrements. Developed in the 11th century for Japanese aristocracy, kakigori is to Japan what sno-balls are to New Orleans—cold, sticky-sweet and ubiquitous in summertime.

In the last few years, kakigori has gained traction on American dessert menus, notably at The Lobster Club and Bonsai Kakigori in New York, Haiden in D.C., Majordōmo in Los Angeles and Cadence in Philadelphia.

Now, the manual ice shavers are beginning to appear on backbars. In Chicago, Three Dots and a Dash and California Clipper feature kakigori drinks, and Julia Momose will soon add one to her menu at Kumiko. In New York, in addition to Katana Kitten, TBD Chicken has a machine, Intersect by Lexus just added boozy kakigori to its menu, and Dave Arnold and Don Lee’s Existing Conditions is serving kakigori drinks all summer long.

Masa Urushido shaving kakigori ice at Katana Kitten. Caroline Hatchett

Kakigori Cocktails Come to America

Arnold purchased his first kakigori shaver in early 2012, just a few months after opening Booker and Dax. “I went to Japan to do a guest bartender thing at Park Hyatt. I was walking around on the street and saw this old-time guy shaving ice manually,” he says. “I was like, I must own one.” On the same visit, Arnold visited Tokyo’s Kappabashi Street and bought a 30-plus-pound, cast-iron machine, hauled it on his back to the hotel and checked it as his young son’s luggage on the flight back home. Arnold and his crew at Booker and Dax developed a repertoire of kakigori drinks. He wrote about the ice in his book, “Liquid Intelligence.”

Around the same time, bartender Dave Newman, who now owns Pint + Jigger and Harry’s Hardware in Honolulu, began experimenting with kakigori drinks at the Honolulu Nobu. He worked with Nobu’s pastry team to produce boozy blocks of ice for Aperol Spritzes, Negronis and a matcha-Japanese whisky drink.

With a few exceptions, it took seven-plus years for the rest of the country to catch on.

Why Shaved Ice?

For kakigori devotees, texture is the real draw. Unlike the full emulsification of a slushie or blended drink, “kakigori ice will melt in your mouth, and you experience these tiny crystalline shards,” says Jack Schramm, the head bartender at Existing Conditions. The kakigori ice is softer than crushed or snow cone ice, and when you pour liquid over the top of a generous mound, it collapses instantly.

Orange zest grated over the Negroni kakigori at Katana Kitten. Caroline Hatchett

The machines also look cool, plus they’re a lot quieter than a Vitamix, which means they won’t disturb service in smaller and intimate spaces. “The [manual shavers] are a joy, and the noise they make is pleasant, not grating,” says Arnold.

A manual Japanese Hatsuyuki shaver, Existing Conditions’ preferred brand, costs $800 to $900, but Schramm says the Taiwanese brand Fujimarca costs half that and performs 90% as well. The biggest difference between the machines is the ease of adjusting the blade. “The first thing I noticed about the Japanese model is that it’s a dream to adjust; it has a single knob and the blade moves perfectly up and down,” says Arnold. “It also stays dialed in for a long time.”

Beyond the initial investment in the machine and R&D, there are few additional costs to adding kakigori to your bar program. You do need space on your backbar and easy access to a freezer to store ice blocks. If your space is cramped to begin with, Newman cautions against adding a large machine to the clutter.

Jack Schramm shaving ice into his Italian Ice kakigori at Existing Conditions. Caroline Hatchett

Newman also doesn’t recommend adding one to a restaurant bar program. “They’re difficult from a service perspective,” he says. “We had a 250-seat restaurant, and we would go from not making any to serving a table of 20, where everybody would order one. By the time you get the 20th made, the first is a puddle, and you lose the appeal if drinks come out one at a time.”

In terms of speed, shaving ice manually takes about the same amount of time as shaking or stirring a drink, according to Schramm and Urushido. But kakigori cocktails degrade quickly. They also cause the fajita effect. “Anytime a bartender uses [the machine], the guests all get this look and start talking, ‘What’s that? I want one,’” says Jean Tomaro, the executive beverage director of Hogsalt Hospitality, which runs California Clipper and TBD Chicken. Existing Conditions charges a few dollars more for kakigori drinks to discourage a run on the bar.

To Flavor Ice or Not

Although Newman used proper kakigori ice molds for his machine, most bars simply fill and freeze quart containers, keeping a few behind the bar for service.

Jack Schramm’s Italian Ice, made with Braulio, Byrrh, Aperol, clarified and acid-adjusted lemon cordial and saline, at Existing Conditions. Caroline Hatchett

Braulio, Byrrh, Aperol, clarified and acid-adjusted lemon cordial and saline, at Existing Conditions (image: Caroline Hatchett)

Arnold and the teams at Hogsalt properties exclusively use filtered water for their drinks. Adding flavor, sugar and solids to ice alters the texture and makes it less predictable. “You get weird ice that’s not the same from the top to the bottom of the block, and the flavor segregates more in the last part of the ice to freeze,” he says. “I would love to be wrong, but I just don’t think I would get the consistency I like out of it.”

Pastry chef Kazuo Fujimura works with large ice blocks of purified water for his Champagne Brulée and Melon Margarita kakigori at Lexus by Intersect. When developing the spiked desserts, he learned that the fluffier the ice, the longer it takes to melt. To achieve that soft, stable texture, he reduces the angle of the kakigori blade and tempers his ice for 20 minutes, until it’s transparent.

Urushido and Kevin Beary of Three Dots and a Dash argue that the ice is such a large component of their drinks that it has to add flavor. Beary has tried strawberry, watermelon, coconut and pineapple ice, generally making a 50/50 solution with water and lightly sweetening it. The blocks don’t freeze as hard, and the crystal structure is different. He also cautions, “Anything with fat doesn’t freeze well at all, and you have to be careful with too much sugar. It settles out as it freezes because sugar is denser. And the result is kind of like a crappy Italian ice.”

Kevin Beary pouring a Daiquiri over pineapple kakigori ice at Three Dots and a Dash.

Even though the ice in Beary’s Pineapple Snow Daiquiri doesn’t have quite the crunch of straight shaved ice, it has a fuller mouthfeel and adds clear pineapple flavor to a recipe of Saint Lucia Distillers Chairman’s Reserve Forgotten Casks rum, manzanilla sherry, lime juice and cane syrup.

Back in Honolulu, pastry chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka has served kakigori at a 1,400-person event and developed kakigori desserts and drinks for her restaurant MW and Michael Mina’s Burger Hale. She always works with flavored ice, compressing and blending local fruit with minimal additions of syrup or water. When she adds alcohol to ice blocks, she often infuses fruit with a spirit or the reverse.

Dialing in Specs

When developing kakigori drinks, Schramm recommends starting with a classic shaken cocktail and bumping up the sugar. While kakigori’s rapid dilution and chilling have little effect on how guests perceive acid, the ice mutes alcohol and sweetness. “It’s a great way to use fruit liqueurs and amari—spirits that might not otherwise fit on your menu,” he says. “It also works if someone ordered a case of something that won’t move.”

Kakigori ice with amaro (left) and Pago Pago kakigori at California Clipper.

To further dial in specs, Arnold suggests a straightforward alternation. “The easiest trick is to flip your drink,” he says. “If you have a cocktail with one-and-a-half to two ounces of a base spirit and one-half to three-quarters ounce of a high-alcohol modifier, just flip the ratios. It makes it more expensive, but the build has to be small to account for so much dilution.”

Chilling glassware also affects the ratios. Arnold says there’s a one-quarter- to one-half-ounce difference in dilution between a room temperature and chilled glass, and if you chill glassware, you don’t have to adjust sugar and alcohol content quite as much.

Size matters too. Urushido uses a six-ounce paper cup, and the bar teams at Three Dots and Dash and Existing Conditions use six-ounce coupes with the wash line falling one-half ounce below the rim. While Beary or his guest pours all the liquid ingredients over the ice at once, Arnold and his team pour half the liquid into the coupe, dome ice on top and pour in the remaining liquid with flourish. They then quickly stir the drink and present the pseudo-slushie with its irregular, crunchy bits of ice to their guests.

Melon Margarita kakigori at Lexus by Intersect.

What’s Next?

While kakigori cocktails have been spotted in a few Tokyo bars, most of the innovation is happening here in the U.S., where bartenders are less wed to tradition. Urushido is developing a St-Germain, sake and jasmine kakigori for August. Beary is working on a Martini made with ice that’s equal parts vermouth and water, and the team at Existing Conditions is trying to make a flavored ice that meets Arnold’s standards.

And Newman, who was ahead of the curve at Nobu, has no plans to bring kakigori to Pint & Jigger or Harry’s Hardware. “You know, the best thing to come out of this article is that in four years the resale market is going to be flooded with kakigori machines,” he says with a laugh.