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Bartenders experiment with exotic ice cubes

From smoke to flowers to juice, there's more in these cocktail cubes than just frozen water

May 07, 2013|By Kate Bernot, @redeyeeatdrink

At a high-end cocktail bar, everything from glassware to garnishes adds extra detail to your drinks. It's no surprise, then, that ice is the next frontier. The Aviary blew minds when it opened in 2011 with its alcohol-filled ice orbs, and now bartenders across the city are pushing the limits of what can be frozen into water. But these stunners are more than just a pretty embellishment: Flavored ice adds new tastes and aromas to cocktails as the cubes melt, making the last sip of your drink quite different than the first. Just looking to cool down on a hot patio? Of course, they'll take care of that, too.

Smokey Paloma ($13) at Taverna 750 750 W. Cornelia Ave. 773-904-7466

Cocktails need not be so stuffy and serious. That was the principle guiding Benjamin Newby, a cocktail consultant who created the recently revamped drink menu at this Italian-leaning Boystown restaurant. So when he wanted to put a spin on the paloma—a classic Mexican cocktail made with tequila and grapefruit soda—he added a few fun flourishes. The first is the drink's bourbon-vanilla ice cube, a 2-inch-by-2-inch square over which the bartender pours tequila and house-made grapefruitcello (like the Italian liqueur limoncello, but made from grapefruit). "I first poured the drink over a normal ice cube and I thought the cocktail needed to be a bit softer," Newby said. "The tequila was a tad too sharp, but the vanilla and bourbon round it out." The Smokey Paloma also includes some tableside drama: It's served in a glass that's brought to a table upside down, trapping hickory smoke inside. At the table, it's flipped and the ice cube is dropped into the smoke-filled glass; then the cocktail is poured over it. "The idea with this was to have stuff that was a lot of fun and performance-based," Newby said. "Each cocktail has a special thing that sets it apart."

AM/PM ($10) at Two 1132 W. Grand Ave. 312-624-8363

"This is basically our answer to the mocha Frappuccino," said Two's owner Yamandu Perez of the AM/PM—a vodka, Kahlua and white chocolate mixture poured over a coffee ice cube. The bartender heats Julius Meinl coffee and a few secret spices into a syrup, and then freezes the mixture into a cube. The liquors are shaken until frothy—"You have to shake the living crap out of it," Perez said—and then poured over the cube, which remains hidden by the slightly sweet liquid until the cocktail is halfway finished. If this sounds like a cross between your morning coffee and nighttime dessert, that's the goal—and the inspiration for the drink's name.

Hirsch Gupta ($18) at Rebar 401 N. Wabash Ave. 312-588-8034

When people visit Trump Tower, they're expecting attention to detail. That's why the hotel's two lounges, Rebar and outdoor bar The Terrace at Trump, added an ice program, which cranks out perfectly clear cubes as well as ice in flavors such as rosewater, raspberry and lime-cucumber. Most intriguing, though, is the smoked ice cube at the center of the bourbon-based Hirsch Gupta cocktail. Crushed ice chips are cold-smoked over cedar and frozen into an oversized square cube, which increases the smoky flavor in the cocktail as it melts. "When you first get it in the glass, the smoke is not the first thing you notice," said Christopher Roberts, Trump's director of food and beverage. "But the melting ice does cause the drink to evolve over time, and it plays off the flamed orange peel and Creole bitters in the cocktail."

Bottled cocktails (Happiness, Longevity and Prosperity) ($22) at Shanghai Terrace 108 E. Superior St. 312-573-6744

Frozen inside ice spheres like bugs trapped in amber, these chrysanthemum, orchid and marigold flowers aren't just beautiful but symbolic as well. "China is a culture of florals," said Jisoo Chon, director of food and beverage at The Peninsula's Cantonese-style restaurant Shanghai Terrace as well as the hotel's outdoor lounge, The Terrace at The Peninsula. "We pinpointed three flowers that are very famous for symbolic reasons, and married them with specific cocktails." The chrysanthemum, for example, has been grown in China since the fifth century B.C., and now represents a long, carefree life. That makes it the perfect accompaniment to the Longevity cocktail, a summer-appropriate combination of blue curacao, coconut rum and orange and pineapple juices, served in a large bottle that yields about two regular-sized drinks. "As the cocktail slowly melts the ice, you start to get the aroma of the flower in a very subtle way," Chon said. "As you're enjoying the second cocktail, at the end portion of it, especially if you're out on The Terrace, the ice will completely melt so that the actual flower will be exposed and you get a stronger flavor of the flower."

Light Guard Punch ($15) at Drumbar 201 E. Delaware Place 312-943-5000

Flavored ice has become a signature of this nearly year-old rooftop lounge on the 18th floor of the Raffaello Hotel. Following the popularity of the oversized cinnamon ice cube in Drumbar's Peared cocktail, beverage director Craig Schoettler recently introduced a springy pineapple juice ice cube in his Light Guard Punch. "Yes, we could make an ice cube out of anything we want, but the reason the pineapple is in there is because it's a flavor already in the cocktail and because it slowly changes it as the ice melts," Schoettler said. The pineapple flavor plays up the sweeter notes in the Paul Beau cognac and a Hungarian sweet wine called tokaji that form the base of the drink, which also includes fino sherry and a splash of champagne poured tableside. "I don't like doing things just because I know how to do it or because it's fancy or cool," Schoettler said. "There has to be a reason that benefits the drink, not just the wow factor."

kbernot@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink

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