As a software trainer, Nick Hedberg travels the country, often ending his day in a bar where he orders his favorite cocktail: an Old Fashioned.
When he's home, the St. Paul man drives across town to Eat Street Social for its version of the classic. Called the "Older Fashioned," the $12 cocktail blends four small-batch bourbons, gourmet sugar and bitters, poured over a solid cylinder of clear ice that fits neatly inside the tumbler.
"I call this the best Old Fashioned in the country, and I'm in a position to know," Hedberg said.
Eat Street Social has claimed its place on the local craft cocktail scene, with the "Older Fashioned" as its signature drink. Distinctive ice is part of the cocktail's allure.
"When our guests order that drink, they expect to get that rock in that glass," said Keith Werner, manager of the Minneapolis bar.
The growing fascination with craft cocktails — which feature high-end ingredients and cost $10 to $20 — has created an equally high-end business for properly chilling them.
"Ice is one of the pillars of a great cocktail," said Nicholas Kosevich, co-founder of Bittercube, Milwaukee-based maker of handcrafted bitters.
"We're in the midst of a cocktail renaissance, focused on the art of the drink. There's beauty in a perfect piece of ice," he said.
Kosevich explained that most ice machines run cold water over frozen plates, making layers of thin sheets of ice. "It's not a solid piece; you can squeeze it like a snowball," he said. "Imagine what it's going to do inside a shaker — it's going to fall apart and rapidly dilute your cocktail."
And that, said Robbie Harrell, is something no cocktail connoisseur wants.
"If you spend $12 to $20 for a drink, you don't want it diluted," said Harrell, who sells his Minnesota Ice brand of artisan ice cubes to bars, restaurants and distilleries in the metro area. "The circumference is bigger on our large-format ice. With less surface area, it melts more slowly, so it doesn't water down what you're paying for."
Harrell began working with ice when he delivered ice sculptures "for beer money" while a student at the University of St. Thomas. He was still working on a degree in entrepreneurship when he and a buddy launched their own ice sculpture business in his garage. As the business expanded, it began working with computer-programmed machines rather than human sculptors to custom-carve designs into 300-pound blocks of ice.
"We had this beautiful product that is the basis of the sculptures and we knew we could break it down for bar customers, too," he said.
Now 25, Harrell expects to sell 300,000 pounds of ice this year. He has 20 employees, including five snow-suited craftsmen who work in a walk-in freezer in Minneapolis, wielding chisels and picks to hand-cut the massive ice blocks into chunks, shards, cylinders and nuggets for fancy cocktails.
"I used to have a full-time guy in the basement, chipping ice by hand," said Eat Street's Keith Werner. "Buying this ice ready-made and having it delivered saves us thousands of dollars. And it makes the drink consistently beautiful."
Some of Minnesota Ice's artisan chunks are available at a few metro liquor stores. On the low end, a 12-pack of the 2-by-2-inch cubes retails for $11.99. At the high end, a bag of a dozen hand-chiseled nuggets costs $24.99.
South Lyndale Liquors carries the ice in a specialty freezer positioned next to its high-end whiskey.
"Right off the bat, people think the idea of artisan ice is ridiculous," said P.J. Zavada, bar and spirits manager at South Lyndale Liquors. "Even our staff did. But when you explain the concept, it makes sense. We see customers spending hundreds of dollars to build their home bars. Ice from their freezer might have off flavors, and that taste will end up in the cocktail. I tell them the better the ingredients, the better the drink."
Karen Aichinger couldn't agree more. "Without a doubt, the ice enhances the experience," said the Eat Street Social customer as she sipped an Older Fashioned. "It's like wearing the right shoes with an outfit."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based broadcaster and freelance writer.