A full transcript of the interview with Grant Collins which appears in the February issue of Bartender magazine.
Interview by Simon McGoram
What different types of ice have you been working with at Zeta over the past couple of years?
Like a few bartenders I was inspired by a visit to Japan. I was really focused – with my background from London – about quality ice machines so I would always have a focus on trying to find the best ice machine I could that produced the perfect cube, but it is almost like the endless summer; you’re always trying to chase the best ice machine ever… Going to Japan I found out that most of the top cocktail bars don’t even have ice machines but get in a big block in the morning and they spend a couple of hours pre-service chipping it. So I just thought that seems quite cost effective surely that can be integrated into the bar [Zeta]. So about two and a half years ago we started using block ice which was very basic then. We managed to refine it and we actually make our own now. We’ve got a mould out the back… well actually it is four levels down, but we do our own triple frozen block ice which comes out really nice and crystal clear. So it is a good shaped piece to chip at the bar. We actually chip it. So we’ve got a big block downstairs as they do in Japan. We’ve got a big eski and chip it up and we use freshly chipped ice for as many drinks as we can now. When we started off we drew a line in the sand and said that for any premium spirit over 14 bucks you get freshly chipped ice. Now we try and use it for anything on the rocks.
How do you store the ice?
We’ve got a big freezer downstairs in the storeroom and we keep the big blocks of ice down there. We get a couple of the boys to chip it up and bring it up here in two eskis. We’ve got two freezers up here and we store the chipped block ice in there which as I said we use in any drink on the rocks now. We believe that ice is such an important part of a drink. We now do perfect Gin and Tonic and Vodka Tonic promotions with Q-Tonic which is when we bring a big block up and we actually make a show piece by chipping off the block which really helps sales. When we do this we actually talk about how the ice block evolved; obviously its place in Japan, but also with bars in the States before refrigeration was invented when they use to chip off the block. So that’s a huge part of what we do here and it’s a big preparation part of it as well.
We also use ice spheres; again something that we got from Japan.
Do you make them in moulds or chip them yourselves?
We do chip them ourselves… a couple of the guys have got quite good at it, but again that is a bit of a showpiece. So we try and do that on certain nights. We normally reserve that for the perfect gin and tonic and vodka tonic nights because it’s not that practical especially at the moment; we’re just slammed in here…for 400 – 500 people it’s just impractical. So we’ve also got the ice sphere moulds which I originally got from Japan. I got a prototype made, got a press made in Singapore we’ve use those ice moulds now and triple freeze them too with pure water. We also do some simple evolving drinks by where we flavour the ice sphere… so if it is a Moscow Mule we’d freeze the ginger beer with some fresh lime and as it breaks down it obviously turns into a mule we can do the same with a Cuba Libre with a Cola sphere as well.
Do different shapes of ice and how you chip it effect the final drink?
Totally. Aesthetics has got a lot to do with it. The look of the drink is everything. If you go back to a lot of culinary people – top chefs and especially some of these experimental contemporary chefs – they believe that the sight and smell and look of the product is almost as important as the actual taste. So even when you look at a Negroni, for me, my mouth starts watering if it has got nice jagged ice; it looks beautiful. And the thing is if it’s triple frozen ice it’s not going anywhere for a while. It really makes the drink stand out.
Could you explain the term ‘triple frozen’?
Again this is about trial and error. It’s something that I picked up from Japan. I had a few mates in London that have been doing it; Milk & Honey started doing it quite a few years ago. Basically you freeze some pure water, you retract it out of the freezer for about 20-30 minutes till it starts breaking down and repeat the process three times. Every time you do it the molecules tighten up and it squeezes all of the air out of the ice. You can quadruple freeze it if you’ve got the time. Every time you repeat the process the block gets harder and it gets clearer – it gets crystal clear as well so you get a beautiful ice block. The denser the ice the colder the drinks; that’s the point.
I think that people forget a long time ago that ice was meant to keep your drink cold not to water it down. We’ve al seen dodgy function ice machines in bars. I was at Simon Difford’s bar about five or six weeks ago and ice is such a prominent part of the bar and it all sought of came back to me again. I was like yep, you know it is an important part of the bar; it’s not just me. Everything is built around it. If you want to enjoy neat liquor or a nice Negroni it shouldn’t have 30ml of water in it.
How essential is it for a cocktail bar to have good quality ice?
It is absolutely essential! It’s a basic building block of a quality bar. It’s just as an important part of our prep as chopping lemons and limes. It’s right at the fore-front of the barbacks preparation. They were down there as I came in today chipping the ice – so yeah it’s part of it. We don’t even think twice about it now; it’s that important. I think we’ve got four freezers up here at Zeta now and one out the back because we’ve got all these different ice things going on.
Did it take a while to establish this philosophy?
It’s like anything, I mean when we first started our cocktail list here at Zeta we weren’t even sure we could do it with all these different elements that we wanted involved, but preparation is a great thing. We’ve got a prep day. We still have a prep day and we sorted it all out that way. It’s like cocktails; when you get on a role the possibilities are endless. Like flavoured ice; you could do a Negroni with orange flavoured ice cubes or vanilla even. It can go on and on and on…
How practical is it for bars to offer better quality ice? Is it something that more bars could achieve?
Yeah for sure! I think especially in a smaller bar; that’s really where it comes into its own. I think that if I had a smaller bar I wouldn’t even have an ice machine. I’d freshly chip my own. Obviously here we have a blend of ice machine ice, freshly chipped ice, ice spheres, flavoured ice, but in a smaller bar you could actually just have the ice block. You can make it yourself, you can chip it yourself; you could actually feasibly do away with an ice machine.
I remember even at Hemmesphere a while ago Julian for VIPs and industry people used to pull out a little block and chip away at it and that was a couple of years ago as well. That’s exactly what they do at Milk & Honey. So it is pretty feasible. Here we’ve got a bit of a production line because it’s a big, big bar yeah. In smaller bars I think that really comes into its own. And it’s a nice personal touch. Creating someone’s ice in front of them is another service for the bar. It’s quite impersonal just getting a scope of ice and throwing it in there.
Is making your own ice a cost effective measure?
It can get expensive if you use ice companies as we know. But people like Q-Tonic are onto it now by sponsoring bars by actually paying for the ice to get their product in there. They understand that it isn’t cost effective for all bars. So yeah it is cost effective maybe for us now… it costs next to nothing as we’ve got a good water supporter. Feasibly you could purify your own water, if you had a still as well you could do it that way, make the moulds and yeah it is cost effective obviously a bit of work. But it is easy to pick up the phone and call Mammoth Ice and whoever else it is, but the bills add up if you’re using it everyday or as much as we do. 500 – 600 bucks a week in ice does start to hurt. It is cost effective though once you get your head around it and get prepared and get set up really.
What are some basic things that a bar could do to improve the quality of the ice that they’ve already got?
First up it is choosing the correct ice machine in the first place. A lot of people just go: ‘Right. Ice machine. Tick a box. Done.’ They don’t look at what it is. We only use Hoshizaki, Scotsman, those sort of really well reputed ice machines; they don’t break down they got good service histories. And then maintenance is a great thing too so make sure that there is air that can circulate all around it. It wasn’t until about four years ago that I realised that ice machines had a filter; an air filter in the front. I’ve wondered why, in years gone by, some of the lower quality ice machines use to break down; it helps a lot if you actually unscrew that to get the filter, clean it, so air can actually get in there. Yeah clean the filter most of them have it at the front or the back. Unscrew it take it out just beat it against a wall give it a good shake; that will really help get some air through it. It took me about seven or eight years to discover the filter for the ice machine.
Are ice chipping tools easy to come by?
Yeah they are around there’s a few companies that are importing into Australia. It’s seeming ever more difficult to actually go and buy an ice pick; I think someone told me about some sort of legislation; you can’t actually buy an ice pick in NSW… but you can buy a hammer or a drill!? So I’m not quite sure why. Obviously the movie Basic Instinct is still in the back of everybody’s minds. You can look for them online. Or of course get them from Japan. I’ve made some great contacts over there that I’m still in contact with… there’s a bit of an exchange program with a big group of Japanese bartenders who come over every year. I run a cocktail program for them up here. Which is a bit painful because it’s all through an interpreter. We swap numbers and emails which you have to sort of Google translate. There’s a bartending community around the world that we all sort of share best practices with and those guys love some of the stuff we do down here and we love the fact that they’re just these ice wizards and have got these amazing picks and chipping tools as well. Japan is obviously the centre of it and the us has got some good sights too.
Don’t try to make your own [pick]. It’s like a decent shaker or a decent Hawthorne strainer; it’s a boutique bit of bar equipment. I’ve seen in a few bars people with a six inch nail and a bit of wood on the end – it sort of takes away from the whole sort of look of freshly chipping ice and the whole sort of romance behind it. I’ve even seen people use a hammer! I don’t think that’s what people would have use in years gone by, plus you don’t get those beautiful shards which are so important.