There may be as many puns and double entendres about “cool ice” as there are stellar cocktail bars in San Francisco — and Camper English, a cocktail wiz, ice expert, and occasional Eater SF contributor, would know them all. With the release of his new book, aptly named The Ice Book, he’s focused on, indeed, ice, and says dynamo bars throughout the country have carried different styles and sizes of ice for a long time.
That’s all to say, the kind of ice used for various drinks is more important than you might think. For example, small pebble ice, flaked ice, and shaved ice will dilute a drink and cool it quickly, while a large sphere of ice will melt the slowest and chill the beverage the most slowly, too. A fat block in whiskey falls somewhere in the middle.
English says, on the whole, top-level cocktail bars have ice delivered or use in-house systems to make fancy ice. All those big, chunky cubes that have gained popularity in recent years, for example, come from ice sculptures cut down with bandsaws. Sure, some are made for highball glasses and others look like spheres. But the playing field is more or less the same at a certain level. “All these bars have the same suppliers,” English says.
Soon English says he’s looking forward to teaching enthusiasts how to custom order and carve ice at home; he plans to teach ice butchering classes in the near future. For now, however, English is excited about those restaurants and bars with singular, special ice varieties. Here are five San Francisco bars with ice worth appreciating.
This semi-secret bar tucked upstairs at Fiorella’s Sunset District location, treats guests to an intimate cocktail experience. But English is a fan for another reason: The tremendous old-school ice shaver at the end of the bar. Bartenders put a block of ice on top of the machine and then grind the attached wheel to make ice for each drink. “It’s fun to watch,” English says, “a tiny little room with a giant thing of iron.” English recommends the house slushie, which changes but features hand-shaven ice.
Where else in the city can one get ping-pong ball-sized spherical ice? Unlike some of the others on this list, St. Regis includes this kind of globular ice in all of its drinks. English has only heard of one other place in the United States and one in Canada with the spherical-ice producing machine. A boilerman bar in Germany got popular for the approach; the ice is ideal for highballs.
At this Mission Street party-favorite, a modern Irish bar, barkeeps freeze peas into ice cubes. Granted, it’s just for one drink: The Peas for Bees, a mezcal-based drink with strawberry and pea shrub. Other bars have flavored ice cubes in the city — think coffee cold brew ice cubes — but English is fairly certain this is the only of its kind in San Francisco. “It’s so absurd,” English laughs. “It’s like freezer-burn contact. I love the ridiculousness.”
The Proper Hotel team imported an ice machine that makes barrel-shaped cubes with a hole in the middle. They bought that machine to make the style of ice one finds in Spain, since that’s where the trend of drinking a gin and tonic out of a goblet began, according to English. “That trend happened because they have ridiculously large ice cubes over there,” English says. “Those machines are all over Europe. But in San Francisco, I haven’t seen any.”
Perhaps in addition to top-brass ice, you need a bit of gravitas with your drink? A new addition to this Michael Mina-owned restaurant’s menu is the God of Olympus, one of English’s favorites for clever ice. It’s a vesper — the spirit-heavy drink made famous by James Bond — and the bottle that holds it is stored inside an ice block. Then it is poured from this block-bottle combination into your glass. Unsurprisingly, the drink can only be served from the bar.
If these bars feel a bit too ambitious for the night, Camper’s got you covered, too. Umami Mart, an Oakland Japanese specialty shop across the bridge, orders its ice from Japan. The ice comes in big pieces, which are smashed and rolled in a rock tumbler; the end result is a bag of ice with random shapes and soft edges. To put that fancy ice to good use, order The Ice Book online or through your local neighborhood indie bookseller.