Anyone who’s ever tried to make blocks of ice in a home freezer knows how hard it is to get a cloudless cube. But now, you can buy the fancy, crystal-clear rocks used in high-end cocktail bars from Petworth’s Reliable Tavern.
Co-general managers and bartenders Ben Long and Ben Alt have set up their ice service like a brewery’s growler refill system. On your first visit, you purchase an insulated bag that can carry up to 18 cubes; bring it back for refills, and you’ll get a discount on your ice. With the bag, the two-inch cubes are 10 for $8, 15 for $12, or 18 for $14—80 cents or less each. No bag? Cubes are $1.25 each.
Reliable Tavern is one of the only bars in the city with its own Clinebell ice machine, which produces two 150-pound blocks at a time. Initially, they broke down the giant masses with Japanese handsaws, but have since switched to a bandsaw and a chain saw. Many other local bars and restaurants get their fancy cocktail ice from a boutique ice company founded by Owen Thomson and Joseph Ambrose, both co-owners of U Street tiki bar Archipelago.
Long previously worked in New York for the late Sasha Petraske, a founding father of the modern cocktail movement and an ice master. “One of his biggest contributions to cocktails was brining back the large-format ice,” Long says. “So I’ve been cutting my own ice for a really long time. It never really occurred to me, as long as the owners were OK with it, to buy ice.”
Reliable Tavern is also the first local bar (that we’re aware of anyway) to sell its artisanal ice by the cube to the average Manhattan-making Joe. Long acknowledges that there are probably going to be people who balk at the idea of paying around a buck for some frozen water. After all, many scoffed when Second State, a bar near Dupont Circle which has since closed, attempted to offer a $1 “ice supplement” for whiskey and cocktails a few years ago. (Most cocktail bars quietly build the price of ice into the cost of the drink, sparing the risk of public scorn and outrage.)
The cost, Long says, comes primarily from the labor involved in hand-sawing the cubes, as well as the expense of the specialty equipment. “Ice-cutting takes a lot of time. It’s hard for people buying ice to see it, so I understand in thinking it’s crazy,” he says.
That said, as impurity-free cubes have become ubiquitous in craft cocktail bars, more people appreciate how the dense ice can keep their $14 drink cold without quickly diluting it. And frankly, it just looks cool.
“For us, this is just a little side thing, where if it makes money, that’s great, but our focus is the bar in general,” Long says. “If people don’t get it, then that’s fine. If people do get it, we sell a few extra cubes.”
Reliable Tavern. 3655 Georgia Ave., NW.