The Ice Mages of Queens: Inside the Obsessive World of Artisanal Ice Cubes
When you order a cocktail at Dutch Kills in Long Island City, expect perfection—down to the impeccably clear cube of ice. After all, those rocks come from Hundredweight, the in-house ice shop that shares ownership, and an address, with the bar.
“I don’t really want to be involved in mediocrity, and certainly not when I’m taking American dollars from hardworking people,” proprietor-bartender Richard “Richie” Boccato informs me matter-of-factly. “I’d like to respect my pedigree and make certain that myself and those who I’ve trained are creating the best possible cocktails that we can.”
His pedigree traces back to Milk & Honey, the storied speakeasy where the late bartending icon Sasha Petraske revived Prohibition-era conventions on how to make (and politely enjoy) cocktails. A one-time doorman at Petraske’s West Village bar Little Branch, Boccato worked his way up the ranks, and was entrusted to open the Queens offshoot in 2009.
After Petraske’s untimely death, his widow Georgette posthumously published Regarding Cocktails, a book of musings and recipes he’d been working on. Included was an essay by Boccato extolling the importance of “frozen water,” in which he recounts countless notes and emails from his mentor on the subject. (Editor’s note: The writer has tended bar at Middle Branch, an affiliated establishment.)
“Imagine it’s a hot summer day and you’ve been working outdoors,” Petraske once said to him. “You crack open an ice-cold bottle of Coke. Unbeatable. Now, leave that same bottle of Coke open at room temperature until it’s warm and flat. Undrinkable. Yet we haven’t changed the recipe or the chemical composition of it at all.”
As any good bartender knows, ice is a silent, but paramount ingredient in quality cocktails. Though laymen often use the term “dilution” to describe its function, Boccato says that’s a misnomer.
“Ice is to the bartender what flame is to the chef,” he says. It’s not part of the recipe per se, rather, it’s the elemental force that turns its disparate parts into a whole.
There’s an undeniable, inexplicable difference between making a cocktail with everyday refrigerator-churned crescent ice versus larger, molded cubes. It’s really just science. The temperature and size—the bigger the ice, the smaller the surface area—are all part of the equation: how cold your drink is, how high the water content is and how long it stays cold. Larger cubes also help integrate solid ingredients like muddled mint, cucumber, strawberries or egg yolk into a shaken drink. And let’s face it, a big cube in your rocks glass or perfectly formed spear in your Collins is just sexy as hell.
In the early days of the Milk & Honey family of bars, Boccato recalls barmen spending two or three hours a day filling hotel pans with water, solidifying them in chest freezers and chiseling the resulting slabs with rubber mallets and ice picks to create the ideal cubes and spears. So, when the water tapped at Dutch Kills, through “150-year-old pipes ripe with sediment,” yielded cloudy ice a few days before opening day, Boccato acted quickly. “I could not serve that ice with a clear conscience—‘clear’ being the operative word,” he says.
After reworking his filtration system—Hundredweight’s ice is made with New York’s finest tap, filtered many times—Boccato sought out the expertise of Okamoto Studio, a high-end ice-sculpting studio a few blocks away. After befriending the artists and learning how to make clearer, higher quality ice, Boccato purchased his own set of Clinebell CB300X2 Carving Block Ice Makers, top-of-the-line appliances that produce two 300-pound blocks of crystal-clear ice every three to four days. And in 2011, he and his business partner, Ian Present, officially founded Hundredweight Ice. Its first customer was Dutch Kills.
Since 2014, Boccato’s wife, Paty, has helmed Hundredweight as general manager. What was once two Clinebells has become seven, lined up side-by-side churning out gargantuan blocks, which are hoisted out of the machine, broken down into more manageable pieces via chainsaw, then further shaped by staff members using a band saw, and sometimes by hand. Paty recalls the long journey of honing that process.
“In order to get the cubes perfectly square and keep them from sticking to each other, we’d iron the ice with an actual iron and then drive it around in our car before loading them into the truck.”
Nowadays the team goes through roughly 30 of these a week for more than 300 customers—Attaboy and the Dead Rabbit in Manhattan, the William Vale Hotel in Brooklyn and The Last Word in Astoria, to name a few. Their team has also grown. “Pedro is the best—better than any machine you can buy,” she says proudly as resident ice-cutting master Pedro Duran, who joined the company in 2013 and now oversees his own team of ice assistants, expertly cleaves an ice block into a stack of Old-Fashioned–ready cubes in seconds. Hundredweight’s customers can order ice in the form of readymade two-inch cubes and highball spears or larger slabs for DIY cubes and yes, as 10-inch blocks.
But despite having expanded both in production and reputation, Hundredweight has grown exclusively by word-of-mouth, no marketing or PR. Paty prides herself most on keeping it all family owned and operated, and staying true to their origins.
“We’re working to become an employee-owned business,” she says. And in order to maintain the quality of their product and give customers the attention they need, Hundredweight only operates within the five boroughs, although they’ve inspired countless copycats nationwide.
Paty is fighting to make all facets of the operation fully sustainable. She started with the bags that package the ice—all are recyclable and sourced from recycled material—and removed the ice machine condensers to the roof to keep them cooler using less energy. Her goal now is to install solar panels by year’s end.
Today, superior cocktail ice can seem like a given; drinkers and bartenders alike take the stuff for granted. But next time you order a cocktail, remember that your magical little ice cube might have been cut with love, just for you, by the ice mages of New York City.