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Love clear ice cubes? You might have this San Francisco cocktail writer to thank

Jul 09, 2023

Camper English has, let’s just say, strong feelings about ice.

“There’s not a huge difference between clear and cloudy ice in taste or melting speed,” he says. “But aesthetically, it’s a gargantuan difference between ugly, cloudy, garbage ice and slick-and-glossy, diamond-style clear ice. You can eat filet mignon out of a ditch, or you can eat it off a plate at a fine-dining restaurant.”

English, a cocktail writer from San Francisco, was once a consumer of “garbage ice” – those home freezer tray cubes with fuzzy-white nebulae. But in 2009, he devised a homegrown technique to make ice as clear as a Siberian lake in winter. He basically employed an Igloo cooler to “directionally freeze” ice from the top down and force air bubbles and minerals to the bottom, where they are cut or poured off. English now travels the planet giving talks about ice and has an army of ice nerds on Instagram trying to top one another with spectacular frozen delights.

This May, English ventured out of the freezer and onto the coffee table with “The Ice Book: Cool Cubes, Clear Spheres and Other Chill Cocktail Crafts” (Red Lightning Books, $22). In it, he lays out his process for making clear ice, provides cocktail recipes like “Negroni Spagliato in a Clear Ice Punchbowl” and gives ideas for making your own beautiful ice with fruit, flowers and colorings such as beet powder and cuttlefish ink. There are also helpful tips. Never hold an ice pick at the back, don’t have your freezer too cold, and be careful what you forage: “A beautiful leaf you picked on a hike might look pretty when frozen into an ice cube, but it might also be poison oak.”

The world’s “preeminent cocktail ice scholar,” as the Guardian dubbed English, recently took the time to talk about his hard-H2O obsession, ice-making TikTok insanity and “mystery pillars” that can wreck your freezer, if you’re not careful (this interview was edited for brevity):

What attracts you to ice as a hobby?

I didn’t get into scrapbooking. I got into ice cubes. The good news is ice cubes aren’t permanent. You can make your little project and then drink it or water your plants with it. You haven’t wasted too much of your time or money and, most importantly, it doesn’t take up space when you’re finished. It just melts.

How much ice-making gear do you have?

I have an entire armoire full of stuff, including zillions of trays and cutting tools and ice picks and saws and insulated coolers and stuff to freeze inside of ice cubes, from novelty toys to Halloween decorations. I have ice-ball presses that squish a cube of ice into a sphere, about five different commercial, clear ice-producing trays, plus a whole lot of tools to pattern and bedazzle ice in various ways.

What’s your water bill like?

Luckily my landlord is paying that.

How many things did you try before coming up with your method in 2009?

I went systematically through some of the ways to make clear ice “in theory,” such as boiling water. I would freeze it and then let it melt and freeze it another time. It wasn’t getting any clearer. I tried boiled water, distilled water, even carbonated water just to see what would happen. It made cloudy ice, all the time – that’s what happened.

You’ve inspired thousands on social media to make their own perfectly clear ice. What’s that like?

I’ve been contacted more than five times this week alone, and it’s only Tuesday. People ask questions about their ice and why it’s not freezing clearly. I have people sending pictures of their “horrible, ugly ice” and it has one bubble in it. I’m like, “My dude, your ice is fine. The problem is you.”

There’s an Instagram tag for #cleariceweek which happens once a year now (in January). What’s blowing up on TikTok into utter insanity is ice-restocking videos, and people demonstrating basically my method from over a decade ago. It’s a whole genre with people pouring ice into 13 different containers in their freezers – coffee-flavored ice, ice infused with flowers, small sizes and big cubes and different colors.

In the book, you give tips on how to hold peelers and ice picks. Was that learned from hard experience?

I think most bartenders would agree the most dangerous equipment in the bar is the Y-peeler for citrus. It just wants to take a layer of skin right off your thumb if you’re not careful. I’ve done that only twice, because there’s a lot of blood when you do it, so I don’t make that mistake anymore. I’ve learned I’m not very handy, so for me to use an ice pick is taking a step toward my eventual death, but I’ve actually only poked myself in the hand just once.

Tell us about this strange phenomenon of the “mystery pillar”?

When you make ice cubes in a cooler system, often one cube pops up out of the tray and starts forming a pillar skyward. If you go out of town, that pillar can grow and pin into the ceiling of your freezer. In my case, I had to chop it off in the middle to extract it – I thought I was going to break my freezer.

What are your favorite cocktails to make?

For me, it’s the same thing as salad. I’ve never had an incredible salad I’ve made for myself, but when other people make a salad, they seem to be better. So I like to go out for cocktails and then drink simple drinks at home – but with the best ice in San Francisco.

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NewsWhat attracts you to ice as a hobby?How much ice-making gear do you have?What’s your water bill like?How many things did you try before coming up with your method in 2009?You’ve inspired thousands on social media to make their own perfectly clear ice. What’s that like?In the book, you give tips on how to hold peelers and ice picks. Was that learned from hard experience?Tell us about this strange phenomenon of the “mystery pillar”?What are your favorite cocktails to make?Follow Us