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Chip Off the Old Block 

In the exotic army of ingredients that bring us delicious cocktails, it would appear that the ice is simply a steadfast, nondescript footsoldier. Overshadowed by the more colorful fruits and spirits, the humble cube seems to ever chill, never shine. Not so, says Sasha Petraske, proprietor of three ingredient-driven cocktail bars in Manhattan. During "On The Rocks," a panel at Tales of the Cocktail on the importance of ice, Petraske and others will impart how this basic building block of drinks is actually one of the most important factors in overall flavor.

At any of Petraske's bars, a highball in a tall glass is presented chilled by a single, imposing chunk in the shape of a railroad spike, pre-cut from an old-fashioned block by one of his bartenders. That decision isn't entirely aesthetic.

"Cocktails are almost always either shaken or stirred with ice to both chill them and to add water," he explains. "The idea is to add the minimum amount of water, but the right amount of water. Larger ice, with less surface area, lets you get the drink colder," adding less water, he says. The large ice cubes ideally make it so that each sip, from the first to the last, is nearly the same temperature and the same flavor.

"The decline of bartending happened almost exactly with the rise of ice machine companies," he says. Machine-made cubes have completely replaced the hand-cut chips off the block the iceman brought in days of yore, he says, which contributed to the pitiable drop in standards for the cocktail. "They make cubes that are designed to melt as fast as possible, to give the customer less liquor," says Petraske. "They're actually not shaped like a cube at all -- more like a barrel," with a greater, faster-melting surface area, he says, adding that the cubes from a home ice cube tray are actually ideal for cocktail-making. "By the '80s, you couldn't get an ice machine that made a good, honest cube."

Besides Sasha's explanation of the practical use of ice, "On The Rocks" will address the science of ice and its history. Is he concerned that other bars will hop on his bandwagon?

"I think people's shortsightedness will prevent them from doing it," he says. "It's an investment of not only money but time and space to have the freezers in the bar -- although they cost a quarter of what it costs to buy an ice machine. But if people call up and ask how we do it, we tell them. It's not really proprietary."

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