How To: carving handmade ice spheres, with Yoshi Onishi

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Ice is a key component of every cocktail: dilution, temperature — these two factors are important to understand. But there’s also a wow factor that comes from ice, and it’s a hallmark of the Japanese bartending style.

That’s why we popped into Sydney bar, Tokyo Bird, to learn from a fine proponent of the hand carved ice sphere art: Tokyo Bird co-owner Yoshi Onishi. Here he shares his tips for getting great ice spheres, the hand crafted way.

ice carving tools
The tools of the trade

First up? “Keep your fingers out of the way,” he said. Starting with a big block of rectangular ice — which you can either buy in, or make yourself — he needs to carve off smaller block which will then be fashioned into a cube, and then a sphere.

“What I usually do is score it,” he said. “Start with one end, score it through to the other so you’ve got a groove. And then saw it like you’re chopping down a tree. Once you get to halfway, the cut should be clean.”

This is when you tap on the back of the knife — Onishi uses a butchers knife — with a mallet or the back of the ice pick.

“You just give it a good tap,” he said. “Keep the knife as straight as possible, and what you’re doing is getting a crack in the ice so you get a nice clean cut.”

The next step is to get a cube from your rectangle — again, score the block, and crack it in half.

Once you have your squared cube, the shaping begins with the ice pick.

“I start by using the small pick, it’s for fine detail,” said Onishi.

steps

“I always start with the corners. The safest way when you’re first starting is to keep your palms together, so you never hit your fingers. The other trick is to make sure that the base hand rotates the ice, and the other hand is like throwing a dart at the ice. The harder you hit it, the bigger the chunk of ice that will come off,” he said.

Onishi repeates this until he gets rid of all the corners and edges, and is the right size for the glass.

Now, he takes a smaller knife to smooth out any remaining edges.

“Similar to peeling an apple, just be careful — probably practice with an apple to get used to the motion,” he said. “You’re just shaving off a little of the ice.”

Once this is done, whack into a glass and toast your skills with some expensive, hard to find whisky.

Onishi suggests prepping these before service, as it does take time — even for a pro.

“I try to prep everything before service, unless it’s a slower night,” he said. Which, when you’re serving 50 or more of these spheres a night, is not a bad idea.