To spend an hour talking the majesty of ice with Jay Browne is to end up completely inspired and, on occasion, profoundly jealous of the journey he’s taken over his career.
First, let’s deal with the envy.
As any dedicated liquor nerd knows, the setting can be just as important as the cocktails when it comes to imbibing. Hopefully, you’ve been lucky enough to have ingested a Blood of Christ at the resurrection-fixated El Garlochi in Seville. Or watched the toy mechanical bull charge along the Los Angeles Polynesian palace known as Tiki-Ti.
Browne—who earlier this year launched Vancouver’s Kodama Ice Company—has spent much of his adult life in bars, both as a customer and a mixologist at places including the fabulous Bao Bei in Chinatown. Like all great bartenders, he understands the importance of being able to tell a great story.
On that front, he’s at no loss for words when asked what motivated him to launch Kodama, which produces artisanal ice so beautifully pristine the cubes can be described—with no hyperbole—as works of art.
Asked what inspired the business, Browne launches into a detail-rich history of Japan’s long history of mixology. While North America places an emphasis on volume, with bartenders making hundreds of drinks each night, Japan has long valued the importance of an intimate and unique experience. As a result, bars are often tiny, to the point where there’s only a maximum of a dozen seats with the proprietor approaching his craft with pride.
Reflecting on where he learned that ice could indeed be a beautiful thing, Browne flashes back to an experience at one such bar, the iconic High Five in Tokyo.
“The bartender there is named Hidetsugu Ueno, and he’s famous for carving these beautiful ice diamonds—he’ll do it right in front of you,” Brown tells the Straight in a phone interview. “The point of the diamonds is that all the different angles on the cube will reflect the light so your drink looks like it’s sparkling like a diamond.”
As Vancouver liquor nerds know, Kodama is making a name for itself with crystalline two-inch cubes that are hand-cut by Browne in an East Van commissary. The process starts with filtered water being fed into Clinebell large-block ice machines.
“It works in the opposite way that nature freezes ice,” Browne says. “In nature, if a lake or river is freezing, the water freezes from the top down. A Clinebell freezes from the bottom up where the condenser is placed.”
The walls in the Clinebell are designed to move during the freezing process, which is integral to producing clear ice.
“The reason you get cloudiness in the ice cubes you do in your freezer is that the water is frozen from every single side. That concentrates everything to the middle of the cube, and then things build up and push out, which is why you get that cloudiness. That cloudiness can also come down to dust and debris.”
With water circulating constantly in the Clinebell, impurties are pushed to the top. After 72 hours, you’ve got a 300-pound block of ice that Browne eventually lifts out with an engine-block hoist and then carves up with a chainsaw. Slabs are then cut on a food-grade bandsaw after which they are hand-shaped into cubes.
From pure ice, then, comes superior drinks. You wouldn’t use blackened or wilted cilantro in a ceviche at your dinner party, so when making drinks for guests, why would you use ice that’s been soaking up freezer smells since Mackenzie King was prime minister?
“Ice is to a bartender in the same way that fire or flame is to a chef—it’s a tool for shaping your libations or creations when making cocktails,” Browne says. “People don’t realize that it can sometimes make up to 25 percent of your drink, which is a fairly significant proportion. When you think about all the stuff that you’re putting into a cocktail, you should definitely think about the ice you’re putting in there as well.”
The role of ice?
“Part of being a bartender is learning how to present a balanced drink,” Browne says. “A lot of the time, if you’re not using ice in the right way, you’ll end up with a drink that’s not as good as you hoped it would be.”
The key to getting that balance right is to think about what you want the ice to be doing in a drink.
“There’s crushed ice, cubed ice, and big-format ice,” Browne notes. “It’s kind of like having an arsenal at your disposal for whatever kind of cocktail you’re making. Tiki cocktails, for example, can be quite strong, so pouring them over crushed ice provides an added surface area so things dilute a little more quickly, which is important for something like a Zombie. Without getting too much into the science of things, the big block cubes the Kodama Ice Company does were originally made for stirred cocktails.”
Classics like the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and Godfather fall under that umbrella.
“Stirred cocktails don’t tend to have aeration in them, so they tend to come out clear,” Browne says. “Big-block ice in a clear cocktail completely adds to the aesthetic of a drink. That’s the allure of our ice.”
You can source Kodama ice by reaching out to Browne at the Kodama Ice Company Instagram page. And once you’ve got your hands on cubes that you’ll want to sit there admiring instead of using, you can use them to make this recipe, which he’s provided as one of his favourites.
1 oz Santa Teresa 1796 Venezuelan Rum
1 oz Esquimalt sweet vermouth
1 oz Campari
Stir all ingredients in mixing glass with ice until very cold (at least 1 minute) then strain over a big ice cube, garnish with a nice big twist of orange zest.
Mike Usinger is not a professional bartender. He does, however, spend most of his waking hours sitting on barstools.